Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Being A Smart Patient

Neil Armstrong survived 78 combat missions in the Korean War, was a test pilot for the X-15 and flew to the moon and back as the first man to step on the moon. However, he did not survive a trip to a suburban Cincinnati hospital in 2012 where he had open heart surgery at age 82.

Neil Armstrong and the X-15, circa 1960
Credit: NASA

In the aftermath of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing the New York Times and Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Armstrong's family had gotten a $6 million settlement from Mercy Hospital-Fairfield related to the care that Armstrong received in conjunction with that heart surgery.

That cash settlement had been kept under wraps as part of the legal agreement until a whistle blower recently sent supporting documents to the papers. Armstrong's children and grandchildren received the payments after they threatened a lawsuit alleging that the hospital had not met the standard of care in its treatment of the former astronaut and test pilot.

Armstrong's death appears to have resulted when a nurse at the hospital removed epicardial wires protruding from Armstrong's chest while he was in a step down unit after a temporary pacemaker had been inserted to regulate his heart after the bypass surgery. In doing so the pericardium was torn and the cavity sac around the heart starting filling with blood. That blood choked off the function of the heart before the hospital team could correct the problem and Armstrong suffered irreversible brain damage. It was alleged that the problem could have been corrected if a cardiothoracic surgeon and operating room had been on standby.

What I found baffling in the story is why would Neil Armstrong, one of the most famous people on earth, go to a modest suburban community hospital for open heart surgery?

It is particularly bewildering considering that Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer by training, was someone you would expect to be both analytical and meticulous in his preparation in dealing with risky situations.

Sadly, Armstrong was human and he probably did what most of us do when a decision regarding health care in concerned. He took as gospel what his physician told him. He might have also consulted with his family or a few friends. He probably did not seek a second professional opinion. He likely did not consider getting care at any place other than the Cincinnati area where he lived.

When I was in charge of employee benefits for a Fortune 500 company I spent a lot of time looking at our costs as well as the quality of care that our employees received. We were self-insured for the health care costs of our 10,000+ members so both of these issues were critically important to me.

When you study this issue as closely as I did you quickly discover that health care is one area that high quality care almost always produces the lowest cost care. If you receive the right care, at the right time and at the right place you generally are going to have the lowest costs. You will not overpay for care that you don't need and you will not have to pay again if the original treatment does not solve the problem or complications arise.

The problem is that it is very difficult for any of us to assess the quality that we are going to get in any health care situation. We can judge bedside manner much better than the technical skills of our doctor. We choose the local hospital because it is convenient and we want to feel comfortable in our surroundings and close to our family if we have a health issue. However, bedside manner and a convenient hospital should be far down any list when considering medical treatment.

I think there is much to be learned from the Neil Armstrong experience that may be helpful to you or a loved on.

I developed an educational seminar for our employees in 2007 to help them become a "Smart Patient, Smart Consumer" that was based on the book You: The Smart Patient by Mehmet Oz, M.D. and Michael Roizen, M.D.

United Healthcare subsequently took the basis of this presentation and made it available to all of their business customers with my permission and that of my company.  You can view that presentation here.

I will summarize a few key points that everyone should keep in mind regarding being a smart patient that I included in that seminar based on the excellent book by Oz and Roizen.  I highly recommend it to everyone.

  • You need to be your own health advocate. If you don't feel that you can do that for yourself get someone else to be an advocate for you. Don't be afraid to ask questions and get the answers you need.
  • Choose your doctor carefully.
  • Make sure he or she is board certified.
  • A good way to find a great doctor is to ask ER nurses. They usually know who the best doctors are from observing a lot of them.
  • Do not be afraid to seek a 2nd or 3rd opinion (a 2nd opinion results in a new diagnosis about 1/3 of the time but only 20% of patients seek one). You should seek a 2nd opinion every time a doctor recommends surgery. You should also seek a second opinion if your doctor is unwilling to discuss alternative treatment options with you.
  • If your doctor is going to do any procedure make sure they have a lot of experience doing it. You don't want someone who does a handful of anything. You want them to have seen a lot and done a lot of similar procedures.
  • Choose your hospital just as carefully. Realize that the doctor you choose is going to be tied to a hospital through admitting privileges. A great doctor at an average hospital is not good enough. Make sure you have both.
  • Make sure that the hospital you choose is also doing lots of the procedures you are in need of. For example, if it is bypass surgery, you want the hospital to be doing a minimum of 500 per year. You want to make sure they have seen everything so they can deal with anything that might come up.
  • The last thing you should want is a hospital that is close to home that will be convenient for you, your family and friends. Your sole objective should be to get in and out of the hospital as quickly as you can. In addition, you should try to limit anyone visiting you as much as possible due to the risks of infection. Find the best hospital for what you need, not the closest hospital.
  • Although it is still not easy to get quality measures about doctors and hospitals, there are more resources than ever before that are accessible to consumers. Your health insurance company likely has quality and efficiency ratings on many doctors and hospitals. There are companies like Healthgrades and Grandrounds who are in business to see that healthcare consumers are connected with the best care. The internet is a great place to begin your research but it can't take the place of a good medical professional.

Why is all of this important?

Consider the numbers.

98,000 people die each year due to medical mistakes. 

2 million people contract an infection in the hospital each year.

Of course, Neil Armstrong was just not a number. He was the first man to walk on the moon. However, when he walked into that hospital he was no different than you or me. He was just a man, and he was mortal.

I don't know all the reasons Neil Armstrong decided to undergo his heart bypass surgery at the hospital he chose. However, it seems a curious choice considering what I know.

The news reports suggest that he did not seek a 2nd opinion before he had the surgery. At least one expert witness doctor who was consulted after Armstrong's death suggested that he would not have recommended immediate surgery for the 82 year old Armstrong.

It appears that the hospital and staff were not well staffed and equipped to deal with the complications that ensued.

Arguably the #1 ranked hospital in the world for open heart surgery is just a 4 hour drive away from Cincinnati.

US News ranks The Cleveland Clinic as the #1 hospital for cardiology and heart surgery with an overall score of 100/100.

Note that even with the high ranking of the Cleveland Clinic it still has areas that need improvement. That is why the best advice for anyone is to try to live as healthy as you can to avoid having to visit a hospital.

The Mayo Clinic is ranked #2 with a score of 99.6/100 and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is ranked #3 with a score of 84.3/100.

Only 50 hospitals in each specialty are given a numerical rank by US News. Hospitals near the top 50 are listed as high performing. The remainder of the 550 in which a scorecard is done are ranked from poor to excellent.

Here is the heart bypass surgery scorecard for Mercy Hospital-Fairfield from US News which has an overall rating of average. Was average good enough for Neil Armstrong? Would average be good enough for you?

Mercy-Fairfield gets its highest score on the scorecard for the volume of its heart surgeries. It also gets excellent scores based on patient experience. However, it does not come close to the Cleveland Clinic or the 50 other hospitals that are top ranked by US News.

Remember as well that every time a medical intervention (tests, immunizations, prescription drugs, surgery) is undertaken you are taking a risk. That risk is generally worthwhile because it will make you better in the long run. However, you could end up in worse shape because of the intervention.

To better understand this, consider the research that shows that in every instance in which doctors have gone on strike around the world, death rates have stayed the same or gone down when the doctors were out. There has never been a study that shows the death rate has gone up. Think about that. When the doctors are not involved the death rate actually drops?

This is attributed to the fact that elective or non- emergency surgeries do not get done when doctors are on strike and a surprising amount of mortality occurs following these procedures. Death rates actually rise when elective surgeries begin again.

A 90% success rate sounds good. However, what if you are the ONE in 10 that gets the short end of the stick?

That is why you should do everything you can to make sure the odds are stacked in your favor as much as possible when it comes to healthcare.

Neil Armstrong could have had complications from his surgery or his recovery no matter where he was treated. He could have been hit by a bus or fallen down a flight of stairs.

However, it is hard not to say "what if" in this case.

May God bless the man who made that small step and demonstrated so well what mankind was capable of.

Keep his memory alive by also remembering the advice I have offered about being a smart patient and consumer of healthcare.

Good health to you!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Will You Eat Fake Meat?

Are you willing to eat meat that is not really meat?

There is a lot of money being bet that you will.

Fake meat is one of the biggest trends of the year.

Fake meat is a new food group that uses plant based ingredients to make something that looks and tastes like meat.

Two of the big brand names that are attempting to establish themselves in this space are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

Impossible Foods markets the "meat" to make what it calls the Impossible Burger.

Beyond Meat has the Beyond Meat burger.

It looks good but will you eat it?

Here are the ingredients in the Beyond Meat burger. The prime ingredient is pea protein. Fortunately, that is pea with an "a". The Impossible Burger relies on soy protein as its main ingredient.

Beyond Meat is already in some grocery stores and Impossible Foods plans to be in grocery stores by the end of the year with its "meat." Both have already made inroads with various restaurant chains.

I have not yet had the non-meat meat.

However, when I was in law school in the 1970's, my wife and I were watching our pennies very, very carefully. Kroger sold a ground beef product called Kroger Pro that included a 20% soybean filler. It sold at a lower price than regular ground beef making it attractive for a couple trying to get by on $20 per week in grocery spending. We would buy it since we had little money and you can only eat so much macaroni and cheese (you could buy a box of Kraft mac and cheese for 15 cents). Adding Kroger Pro to the mac and cheese gave us a casserole. The only problem was that it tasted like eating cardboard. We eventually stopped eating it and Kroger stopped selling it. We must not have been the only ones who thought it tasted like cardboard.

I am sure advancements have been made in food science since that time. However, will enough people eat meat that is not meat?

Beyond Meat went public in May. The IPO price was $25 per share. It closed at $234.90 on Friday. That is +840% since it went public. It was up +33% just last week.

At that stock price Beyond Meat has a market cap of over $14 billion. That was up $3.6 billion in the last week. That is a lot of money being bet on fake meat.

Compare the market cap and product portfolio of Beyond Meat with another food company that has been around for almost 125 years and has a market cap of about $13 billion.

One has Smucker's jellies and jams, Jif peant butter, Crisco shortening and Folgers coffee and many other brands.

The other has fake meat made from pea protein.

Hat tip to @charlebilello for bringing this to my attention on Thursday of last week when the market cap of Beyond Meat was just $12.9 billion.

On Friday Beyond Meat's market cap went up by another $1+ billion so that it is now carries and higher market value than food giants Campbell's Soup and Conagra.

These are the brands that Campbell's Soup owns.

Here are all the brands that Conagra owns.

That ought to give you a perspective on how much money is being bet that you will eat fake meat.

However, will you really eat fake meat?

Count me as someone who is not buying Beyond Meat at $235 per share.

You can also probably count me as someone who is also not going to eat a Beyond Meat burger anytime soon.

Why? My appetite for Fake Meat is about the same as it is for Fake News.

The plant based fake meat of Beyond Meat also reminded me of the 1973 film sci-fi movie Soylent Green in which the plot involves a world in which Soylent Industries controls the food supply of half the world with a soybean and lentil ingredient wafer. Only the very rich can afford natural food as the earth's resources and water have been decimated by pollution, overpopulation and the greenhouse effect. Interestingly, the film is set in 2022. We are almost there!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Mueller and Beyond

There have been few things as heavily anticipated in Washington this year as the testimony of Robert Mueller before Congress.

I guess it could be said that the only thing that was more anticipated this year was the release of the Mueller report.

Before the testimony we heard it was going to be a game changer. Mueller was going to be able to breathe life into the calls of some Democrats to bring impeachment charges against Donald Trump. All of the major networks pre-empted regular coverage to air Mueller's testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

The Democrats told us that the American public just didn't get it. They had not read the Mueller report and needed Mueller to bring it to life. He was going to deliver great sound bites so that average Americans could understand how Trump was guilty of colluding with Russia and obstructing justice along the way. In effect, they needed to view a "movie" to understand the transgressions of Trump since voters they were not interested in reading the book.

What do we know now?

We know nothing beyond what was in the Mueller report which found that neither Trump nor anyone in the United States of America colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. It was also confirmed once again by Mueller that there was not enough evidence to prove that Trump participated in any obstruction of justice.

We also now know that Robert Mueller was nothing more than a figurehead in the investigation. It appears that he had a very tenuous grasp on the facts of the case and clearly did not have a command of what was in the report that bears his name.

If this was a movie it would be compared to the infamous 1987 film Ishtar that is considered one of the biggest movie flops of all time.

At the hearing, the mention of Fusion GPS seemed to confuse Mueller as if he had never even heard of the group which was responsible for the Steele dossier. Mueller claimed that he never once considered that the political leanings of the prosecutors on his staff might present a conflict (not one was a Republican) or color the investigation. 198 times during the hearings Mueller declined, deflected or said he did not know the answer to a question or stated it was outside the purview of his investigation

All in all, Mueller's testimony appears to have been a total disaster for the Democrats.

The Drudge Report captured the optics of the event perfectly.

The Democrats also did no favors for the legacy of Robert Mueller. Mueller has had a distinguished career in public service. However, the reality is that he now will most likely be remembered for a dazed and confused appearance before Congress that suggests that he was better suited to chair a senior living community's resident committee than to be in charge of a special counsel investigation.

Where do we go from here?

Many are saying this should end any thoughts that Democrats have of pursuing an impeachment case against the President.

Fact and reality suggest that is correct. However, many Democrats appear unwilling to face reality. Almost half of the Democrats in the House are intent on initiating impeachment proceedings. The notable exception being Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

As I wrote when the Mueller report was released, Special Counsel Mueller's investigation employed 19 lawyers who were supported by a team of 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants and other professional staff.

Mueller and his team issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communication records, made 13 requests for foreign government for evidence, and interviewed 500 witnesses. Interestingly, in Mueller's testimony before Congress he admitted he rarely sat in on any interviews of witnesses.

All in all, the "Mueller investigation" took almost two years at a cost of over $25 million was spent.

After all of that time and effort what was the principal conclusion of the Mueller report? These are the exact words of Attorney General William Barr in summarizing the report.

"The Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election."  

Facing facts and reality, the Democrats should have folded their tent after the Mueller report.

Their pain is now merely compounding as evidenced by the Mueller hearing. 

A recent NBC News/WSJ poll done before Mueller's testimony found that only 21% of voters supported initiating impeachment proceedings. It has to be less today.

Credit: NBC News/WSJ Poll, July , 2019

You also have to wonder why Democrats continue to be so focused on impeachment when we are now barely a year away from the 2020 election? This is particularly true when there is so much Congress could be working on---immigration reform, healthcare, prescription drug prices, infrastructure.

Of course, it needs to be understood that the House is in a box. Working on anything for the good of the country also means that Trump also gets credit. That is something they simply cannot allow to happen leading up to the election.. That means the likely result is nothing will be accomplished in the next year in the House but more Trump bashing in order to try to drive his approval rating down. 

At the same time, Mueller's inept performance should give new energy to Trump's defenders in Congress to pursue an investigation of the investigators.

Many Republicans in Congress urged the President and others to give wide berth to Mueller during the special counsel investigation. Mueller was supposedly a true professional with a reputation beyond reproach. He would not be involved with a witch hunt or be a part of any biased investigation. He could be relied on to be thorough and fair.

Mueller's appearance this week seems to show he was nothing more than a figurehead suggesting that confidence was misplaced. As a result, the entire Mueller investigation may have been another example of anti-Trump forces looking for a way to remove a duly elected President. This provides more momentum to get to the bottom of what really led to the "collusion" investigation in the first place.

For me, the fact that so much time and money was spent by those who clearly did not like Trump says more than anything else about the truth of any allegations against Trump. Everyone was lined up against him and they still couldn't come up with anything actionable?

Unfortunately, everything has gone pretty much as I predicted shortly before the 2018 mid-term elections. 

This is what I wrote in my blog post, "A Consequential Election" on what I foresaw if the Democrats gained control of Congress. I predicted that we would almost certainly see a Congress only interested in investigating Donald Trump. There would be no interest in doing anything of substance legislatively. I also saw a sharp turn left in the Democrats. Everything I predicted has proven true.

If we think we see chaos in Washington now, think for a second what things will look like with a Democrat Congress.

I can assure you that there will be almost nothing of value done legislatively for the next two years with the Democrats in control. 

If Democrats make inroads in November with their radical political agenda it will further embolden them. It will undoubtedly make things even worse than they are today. The political war will continue and intensify. The divide will only get larger. You can count on it.

In addition, there seem to be many Democrats who believe that the 2016 election of Donald Trump was an aberration. It was random and not real. They can't believe that the "progress" made with Obama could possibly be undone so quickly. That is why they want to double down on an agenda that is even more progressive and radical. They cannot believe the mainstream is not with them.

What happens beyond Mueller?

I don't see much changing. Impeachment talk will eventually have to yield to the calendar as a practical matter. However, the investigations and intemperate talk about the President of the United States from the Democrats will continue unabated. They seem to believe they have no other choice.

Nothing will change until the voters make a choice.

That is why 2020 will truly be a consequential election in more ways that we can imagine.

It may result in the end of Trump.

Or it may be the end of the Democrat party as we know it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Vacation Time

July and August have traditionally been the most popular months for Americans to take vacations. The most recent data I could find from Gallup (2002) indicated that a vast majority of Americans mentioned they would take time off in July (51%) or August (35%) for a summer vacation.

Credit: Gallup, May, 2002

However, recent trends show that Americans are actually taking less vacation time today than they did 20 years ago. Vacation days have decreased by about 4 days over that period as this graph from the Harvard Business Review indicates.

This is despite the fact that many employers have moved to more flexible paid time off programs and an increasing number of employers (particularly in the tech industry) have adopted unlimited time off programs.

This chart shows the growth of paid time off programs (which combine vacation, sick days and personal days into one allotment).

This chart from Indeed.com shows the growth in job postings for positions that offer unlimited time off. This essentially means that you work out your time off schedule with you manager with no set limit on vacation or personal days.

It still is rare but both my son and one of my son-in-laws now have this benefit with their jobs.

You might think that this policy would lead to more time being taken off but the early data suggests the opposite is true.

As an example, this is a chart showing the distribution of the number of vacation days taken at social media company Buffer in 2016 with its unlimited vacation policy. Note the high number who are taking less than the recommended three weeks the company wants employees to take off. This is not unusual according to data I have seen from other companies.

Credit: Buffer

In fact, even with standard vacation policies, the data generally shows that most Americans do not take full advantage of the paid vacation days they are eligible for each year.

54% of Americans did not use their allotted vacation time in 2016.

Why are people taking less time off? The Harvard Business Review article cited above believes it is directly related to the technology-driven world we live in today. In the plugged-in world we live in it has become increasingly difficult to disconnect from work.

People also fear they are missing out if they are not connected all the time. Therefore, it often seems easier on people to stay on the job and stay connected rather than being partially connected while on vacation. You are always connected the best while you are on the job.

Where are people going on vacation if they really get away and leave the USA?

Mexico wins by a large margin. Nothing else is remotely close.

35 million people who live in the United States travel to Mexico every year. Whether these are all American citizens is not known as nobody seems to know how many American citizens and non-citizens live in the United States today.

14 million travel to Canada.

3.7 million travel to the UK. 2.7 million to the Dominican Republic. 2.6 million to France.

Here is a list of the top 20 international destinations for American residents.

It is estimated that 42% of Americans have a passport according to the State Department.

That is double the 21% that had one in 2004.

However, in 1989 only 3% of Americans had a passport!

If you don't think that the stricter international travel rules that have been put in place in the age of terrorism have not had an effect, consider the growth in the number of passports alone.

A lot more Americans are traveling internationally. However, a lot of people are also traveling to the United States.

As this graphic shows, the United States is the #1 travel destination for people around the world based on money spent. $211 billion was generated from 75 million foreign travelers to the States in 2017.

Enjoy your vacation!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Money Offense and Defense

In most sports you need to play both good offense and defense to win.

In fact, it is often said while offense wins games, defense wins championships.

The same is true with financial planning.

Most people spend a lot more time thinking about how much money they bring into their household than they do about how that money gets spent.

Most people develop pretty good offensive skills when it comes to money. They figure out how to earn money and make a living. They think a lot about ways to make more.

Far fewer people have good skills at managing and protecting the money once it enters their bank account. Too often it leaves their account almost as soon as it arrives. Most people have a poor idea of how it gets spent.

Do you know where you are spending your money?

Do you know how it compares to others?

I recently came across some interesting data on household spending in the United States that breaks all of this down for average households.

The average household has 2.5 persons (1.5 income earners, .6 children and .4 seniors).

Annual income for the average household is $73,574. About $10,000 is being paid in taxes. About the same amount is being saved. $53,708 (73% of income) is being spent.

The average household headed by a high school graduate earns less. That means they also have less to spend. They also have less ability to save. Total income is $40,147. $35,036 is spent (87% of income).

The average household headed by a college graduate has $92,409 of income. $63,373 is spent (69% of income).

The average household headed by someone with a post-graduate college degree has $132,987 of income. $83,593 is spent (63% of income).

It is no surprise that those with more education generally have higher incomes. It is also no surprise that those who make more have more to spend.

Those that make more also have a greater ability to save as a large portion of living expenses are the same for everyone. A gallon of milk is the same for everyone as is a gallon of gas. A shirt costs the same for everyone as do movie tickets or the electricity to run the microwave. Yes, if you have the money you might eat out more often or buy more clothes. However, every person only needs to eat so much and can only wear one outfit at at time.

In this data you clearly see how progressive our tax system is.  Those with the highest incomes bear a much higher burden of taxes than lower income groups.

You get a better understanding of both of these principles by looking at the chart I prepared below that breaks down some of the major spending categories comparing those with higher incomes (post-grads) with those with lower incomes (HS grads).

Higher incomes make 3.3x that of those with lower incomes. That higher income also means much higher taxes.

Although income is 3.3x higher, taxes are 13.3x higher for those with post-grad degrees than those with HS degrees. That shows just how progressive our tax system is.

20% of the income earned by the higher incomes goes to taxes. That number is only 5% with the lower incomes.

How do some of the other major spending categories compare?

Higher incomes spend more but the spending does not increase in the same proportions as the increase in income. Even though taxes take a much bigger share of the budgets of these households, spending declines as a percentage of income for most major expense areas.

Outside of housing and entertainment, in which spending more closely tracks the rise in income, in most other categories spending only rises at about 60%-75% of the increase in income.

Part of that decrease is due to the fact that taxes have taken a large bite of higher income budgets before it can be spent. For most people there is also a limit on what they really need to spend today on themselves. Does anyone need 4 cars, 3 house and 100 pairs of shoes? However, if they have the money more power to them. The people who become truly wealthy spend much less than they earn.

You can also see in the chart above that higher incomes only greatly outspend lower incomes when it comes to taxes, charity and savings. What is interesting about this spending is almost all of this inures to the benefit of those in lower income groups. Taxes, charities and capital investment that assists society at large and those with lower incomes in particular.

The chart above also graphically shows how onerous any increase in energy or utility costs would be to lower income individuals. These costs are particularly regressive. If Democrats are supposedly so concerned about those with lower incomes why are they so eager to tax or outlaw lower costs energy sources out of existence?

The same is true with most other living expenses such as housing, food and transportation. Inflation costs in these categories are particularly harmful to those in the middle and lower income groups because it crowds out other spending choices..

Despite what we often hear from liberal politicians the reality is that when the rich are hurt it invariably means that those down the income chain will get hurt even worse. The rich may have to adjust and pull back when things get tough. Their savings may take a hit. They may have to cut back on entertainment, eating out or remodeling their house. However, those actions result in job losses down the chain and big losses in incomes on household budgets that are tight as it is.

Bear in mind as you look at this data that these are all averages.

There are some in lower incomes who are spending little and saving a lot.

There are those with higher incomes who are spending it all (and more) and not saving a dime.

This all does go to show that life is a lot easier if you make more money. You need good offensive money skills.

However, making money is not wealth.

When you have wealth you don't need to make money. Your wealth works for you.

Unless you inherit it, marry it or win the lottery, the only way to accumulate wealth and build net worth is to spend less than earn, save, invest and use compound returns to multiply your money over time.

Think more about how you spend your money. Play good money defense.

Friday, July 19, 2019

50 Years of Progress?

Last year I wrote the blog post below on the 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. I wrote it then because I knew there would be a lot written about the lunar landing on the 50th anniversary and I wanted to be ahead of the curve.

I have not been disappointed. There have been a lot of great stories about the moon landing. Among the best have been profiles of some of the 400,000 people who worked behind the scenes to accomplish this magnificent feat.

I particularly enjoyed this article in The Wall Street Journal that recounts the great work done by the software engineers in MIT's Instrumentation Lab who did the programming of the computer used in the lunar landing.

Of course, in this day and age, it seems there is nothing that has been done in our history that the mainstream media does not try to politicize or denigrate.

Consider this tweet by the New York Times.

Apparently The New York Times is not aware of the contributions of Margaret Hamilton who was in charge of capsule and lunar landing software for the Apollo missions. Her role is written abut extensively in the Wall Street Journal article.

The New York Times must have also missed seeing the movie Hidden Figures which highlighted the significant contributions of African American women in the early days of the space program.

Here is Hamilton receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2016.

Credit; DailyMail

This is Hamilton with print outs of the source code she used in the programming for the Apollo missions in the late 1960's.

It makes me wonder how many women of any color were in the newsroom and in any editorial positions at The New York Times in the 1960's?  Considering the gender bias that undoubtedly was also in effect at the paper at that time it makes it very difficult for me to move past anything The Times writes these days.

It actually gets worse than that Times tweet. Consider this tweet that highlights a story by WTOP radio in Washington, DC about Wehrner von Braun who was the German American rocket scientist that was largely responsible for developing the rocket boosters that made space flight and the trip to the moon possible.

After getting complaints that they had not make it explicitly clear that von Braun had previously worked on rocket science for Nazi Germany during World War II, WTOP issued this correction 6 hours later.

That apparently wasn't good enough. 20 minutes later WTOP decided that the story about the man who was behind the rocket science which took men to the moon "did not meet WTOP's standards and should not have appeared on any of our platforms."

In many ways we have progressed so far in the 50 years since the moon landing. There are so many things we have today that were unimaginable a half century ago.

For example, consider the limitations that Margaret Hamilton and the other Apollo software engineers were dealing with at that time regarding computing power.

How far have we progressed in computing power?

Your iPhone has the computing power to handle 120 million moon missions at once!

That is why one of the major surprises of my life is the fact that it has been 50 years (actually 47 years since the last lunar mission in 1972 by Apollo 17) since we went to the moon.. If you would have asked almost anyone in the early 1970's if they thought it would be over 50 years before we were back on the moon you would have found no one who would have believed it. Most would have thought we would be to Mars by now.

It would also be nearly impossible for someone of that era to understand the way news is (and is not) reported today.

Some might say that the mainstream media has become more "progressive" in how they report the news. I do not see any evidence of much progress in the news reporting business. Look no further than the examples from The New York Times and WTOP.  How can you make something so political about something so phenomenal?

For a more positive perspective on the Apollo 11 landing read my blog post of one year ago.

Also ask yourself whether Neil Armstrong's words would have sounded any better or meant more (as the New York Times seems to believe) if he had instead said this upon stepping on the moon in order to show no gender bias.

"That is one small step for a person, one giant leap for humankind."

How long will it be before Armstrong's actual words will be removed from news stories and history books as not meeting journalistic and content standards?

Small Step, Giant Leap
(originally published July 20, 2018)

One year from today you will not be able to watch tv, listen to the radio or check out social media without it being a big part of the news.

49 years ago today, man first landed on the moon. The 50th anniversary next year is sure to make it a major news story.

I could write about it then but I prefer to be a year ahead of the crowd.

I remember exactly where I was on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed on the moon. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was working for the United States Post Office in Clarendon Hills, Illinois for the summer and had been put on duty that day to do all the mailbox pickups in town, postmark and sort the outgoing mail and have the mail bagged to be picked up to go to the regional sorting center.

I was working alone in the post office late that afternoon with the radio on as Armstrong and Aldrin made the final approach to the moon in the Lunar Module. It was nothing less than amazing to hear those final minutes leading up to those famous words that were calmly uttered by Neil Armstrong "The Eagle has landed."

Armstrong had taken control of the Lunar Module when the onboard computer seemed to be guiding the module into a large crater and rock covered area on the moon's surface. Armstrong overrode the auto pilot and landed the lunar module in a safer, flat area. He had less than 20 seconds of fuel left when the Eagle finally touched down on the lunar surface.

That evening I watched the live tv coverage with my family as Armstrong descended the steps of the Eagle and jumped down from the last step onto the moon's surface with one of the most famous quotes of all time.

TV image of Neil Armstrong taking first step onto the Moon
July 20, 1969

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".

At least, that is what I heard. And what almost everyone else heard as well.

For years, Armstrong claimed that he planned to say, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" and that is what he claims he said on the moon the night of July 20, 1969. However, that was not what people heard. Was it a simple mistake or bad audio?

The scientific conclusion of the tape is mixed. This is what WikiQuotes says about the quote.

 In the actual sound recordings he apparently fails to say "a" before "man" and says: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." This was generally considered by many to simply be an error of omission on his part. Armstrong long insisted he did say "a man" but that it was inaudible. Prior to new evidence supporting his claim, he stated a preference for the "a" to appear in parentheses when the quote is written. In September 2006 evidence based on new analysis of the recordings conducted by Peter Shann Ford, a computer programmer based in Sydney, Australia, whose company Control Bionics helps physically handicapped people to use their own nerve impulses to communicate through computers, indicated that Armstrong had said the missing "a". This information was presented to Armstrong and NASA on 28 September 2006 and reported in the Houston Chronicle (30 September 2006). The debate continues on the matter, as "Armstrong's 'poetic' slip on Moon" at BBC News (3 June 2009) reports that more recent analysis by linguist John Olsson and author Chris Riley with higher quality recordings indicates that he did not say "a".

The Los Angeles Times did a story on the quote in 2013 and cites additional research that suggests that the "a" might be there but was not heard because of the way people who grow up in Central Ohio blend their words. Armstrong was reared in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

The article also suggests, as did Armstrong himself, that the quote really needs the "a man" to mean something. However, most people are going to leave it out when they recall or cite it.

As Armstrong himself pointed out many times, the sentence is meaningful only if he says, "That's one small step for a man." He insisted that's what he said on July 20, 1969 – otherwise, there's no distinction between a single individual and all of humanity.
"I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn't intentionally make an inane statement and that certainly the 'a' was intended, because that's the only way the statement makes any sense," Armstrong told biographer James Hansen, according to "Moonshot," a terrific book about Apollo 11 by Brian Floca.

Putting all of this aside, what I think is most remarkable about Armstrong's words is the fact that he (with the help of his wife) came up with them by himself.

He didn't have a speech writer. There was no public relations firm. No focus groups were used to test out messaging.

It also wasn't as if Armstrong had been specifically selected to be "the first man on the moon" years in advance. Many at NASA believed that Apollo 11 would not be the mission that landed a man on the moon. They thought it more likely that something would prevent 11 from landing. They believed it was more likely that Apollo 12 or 13 would be the missions that would get the moon landing. If that had been the case we might be talking about Pete Conrad (Apollo 12 Commander) or Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) instead of Armstrong.

This is what Neil Armstrong remembered about the prospects of the mission, as he recalled it in 2012, shortly before his death.

"A month before the launch of Apollo 11, we decided we were confident enough we could try and attempt on a descent to the surface," said Armstrong. "I thought we had a 90% chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight but only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on that first attempt. There are so many unknowns on that descent from lunar orbit down to the surface that had not been demonstrated yet by testing and there was a big chance that there was something in there we didn't understand properly and we had to abort and come back to Earth without landing."

Despite those doubts and with no counsel other than his wife, Armstrong put together 11 (or 12) words that were absolutely perfect for that moment in history. It was simply stated but it carried such a profound message at the same time.

As soon as I heard it 49 years ago tonight I thought it was a perfect choice of words. My opinion has not changed over the last half-century.

I sometimes ask myself whether, if faced with something so momentous, I could utter anything half as moving and memorable as Armstrong did. I doubt I could. What about you?

Keep in mind that Armstrong was an aeronautical engineer, fighter pilot and test pilot before becoming an astronaut. He was not known as a man of words. In fact, he was a man of few words according to most who knew him. He was about as far removed from being a poet or artist as you could be.

Truly remarkable.

Today is a day to remember a magnificent moment in history.

On this day a man from earth first set foot on something other than earth.

Neil Armstrong may now be gone but the words he spoke on taking that first step will live forever.

You are sure to hear a lot more about it on the 50th anniversary next year.

Reading BeeLine gets you there one year earlier.

Credit; NASA

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Out of Touch

"All the News That's Fit to Print."

Credit: www. ilpost.it

That slogan has accompanied the masthead of The New York Times since 1897.

It was instituted by Adolph S. Ochs shortly after he bought the newspaper in 1896. It was supposed to represent the paper's intention to report the news impartially and to differentiate the paper from the "yellow journalism" of some of its competitors.

I would suggest that the paper has veered pretty far from its original mission.

Although being a Midwesterner for most of my life I have lived in the New York City metro area twice. Although The Times always thinks of itself as a national publication I was always struck by how out of touch the paper was to the real world that exists west and south of New Jersey.

For example, when I first started reading the New York Times, as an 8th grader living in Connecticut, I usually went to the sports pages first. I always thought it was weird that if I wanted to see if Ohio State won or what happened in the Miami (Ohio)-Bowling Green game you had to look for scores played in the "West". There were no Midwest scores. Anything west of Pennsylvania was considered the "West" by The New York Times. California, Oregon and Washington were Far West.

It was a small thing but it said something to an 8th grader who had come from the Midwest. Don't they understand there is a difference between the West and Midwest? Are they so consumed in their little world around New York City that they are that out of touch?

Of course, nothing showed how far out of touch the New York Times is than the 2016 election. Trump's election was unfathomable to the The Times and most of its readership. To say they have never recovered is an understatement.

Since Trump was elected the paper has ceased any semblance of impartiality. Today its sole existence seems to be to denigrate, diminish and defame Trump in every way it can. It has become exactly the opposite of what it said it stood for when it adopted that "All the News That's Fit to Print" slogan.

In fact, earlier this year I referenced this chart that shows the percentage of all articles in the New York Times that mentioned the name of the President of the United States from 1981-2019.

It is almost as if the New York Times can find nothing else to report on. Of course, we know that coverage is also overwhelmingly negative.

In defense of The Times, the reason it is so anti-Trump all the time is that is what their readers want to read. They don't want to read good news about Trump. They want to read that he has been colluding with Russia. They want to read how he stole the election. They want to read that he is going to be impeached next week. They want to read about how the Trump economy is failing so many people.

You can see a great example on how out of touch The New York Times is with this article from July 5 that was based on a question they asked their readers about how they are dealing with the struggles in everyday life in America today.

Look at the point of view of The Times in the quote below. Americans are living today with "an inescapable sense of dread" and "struggle to acquire the markers of a middle-class life."

Being middle class in America used to come with a certain amount of leisure and economic security. Today it involves an endless series of trade-offs and creative workarounds, career reinventions and an inescapable sense of dread.
We asked readers to tell us what it’s like, and more than 500 people, with widely varied incomes, submitted responses. They described not just their financial worries but also the texture of daily life. Even those with very good incomes expressed fears of instability. They have seen their wages and bargaining power stagnate and wealth spiral to the top, while they struggle to acquire the markers of middle-class life — a college education, health care, the deed to a home.

Who are middle-class families that the Times identified that are struggling today and what are their concerns?

Six households were profiled. Only one had household income of less than $120,000. He was listed as earning between $75K-$100K. Two were in the $200-$400K range. All the rest were making at least $120K.

Let's put this in context. The median household income in the United States in 2017 (the most recent data available) was $61,372.

Perhaps these are middle class New York Times readers but they certainly don't look like middle class American voters.

Predictably, this article received a good deal of push back on Twitter since it seemed so out of touch.

What I found most interesting is the substantial disconnect in what each of the profiled families talked about in their struggles and worries.

They talked about the high cost of child care. One said they spent $92,000 last year on child care.

They talked about the struggle to buy organic foods at a discount.

They also talked about the struggle to save for retirement while also putting money away for their children's education. At the same time, they are very concerned about climate change, which if you believe what you read in The New York Times, is going to mean the end of the world in 10 years.

Fletcher Gustafson, who was profiled in the article, writes a blog  (aptly named The Rational Pessimist) which he used to defend his participation in the article after it came under attack for being so out of touch. If you don't believe how seriously these people have bought into climate change fear mongering, Gustafson mentions it 3 times in his blog post as a priority he wants politicians to address.

He even bold-faced it the last time he mentioned it in his blog post.
"Climate change is going to literally kill everything. Do your f*cking job."

This is the biggest priority for a middle class family in America?

You believe that climate change is literally going to kill everything within a decade but you are worried about being able to buy organic foods, saving for retirement and your child's college education? Do you see a slight disconnect in thinking here?

Ironically, if we do what many Democrats want to do to combat climate change through the Green New Deal, everything these households say they are struggling with is going to be 100 times worse. They also seem to be oblivious to the fact that, if carbon emissions are responsible for climate change, they better be prepared to go to war with China and India to stop it.  I guess The New York Times never pointed out that is where almost all the increase in carbon emissions is coming from.

This just goes to show you how dangerous it is to read The New York Times and not think things through on your own.

If you read something that is out of touch, you will be out of touch.

That is something you never have to worry about if you read BeeLine.

BeeLine----the shortest route to being In Touch.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Difficult to Understand

We live in a world that gets more difficult to understand every day.

Consider Greece.

You may remember all the news headlines about Greece a few years back.

Greece underwent the world's largest government bankruptcy in 2012. It still has one of the world's largest debt burdens--about 180 percent of GDP. The latest reported unemployment rate is 17.6%. The fertility rate is 1.38 raising questions as to where the growth is going to come from in that economy to service all that debt.

Despite all of that, last week saw 10-year government yields in Greece reach lower levels than United States Treasuries.

How does that happen in a sane world?

Why is anyone willing to loan money to Greece for 10 years and be willing to only be compensated 2.01% per year for taking that level of risk?

The US 10-year T-bill rate was 2.12% on 7/12/19.

Part of it is explained by looking at 10-year yields in other European countries. Each of these countries has also been in the headlines in the past about significant debt concerns.

Italy                 1.68%
Portugal           0.57%
Spain                0.48%

How about the yields of 10-years in a few of the bigger economies in Europe?

Denmark          -0.16%
France               0.08%
Germany          -0.27%
Sweden              0.12%
Switzerland      -0.51%

An "investment" in a 10-year government bond in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland will actually result in you being charged interest rather than earning it!

Yields only turn positive in France at 10 years and Sweden at 9 years. All maturities before that are also producing negative yields.

Even Euro-denominated bonds in some emerging market countries in Europe such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are now trading at negative yields.

This chart shows the share of government debt that is earning negative yields by country as of June 18, 2019. It is undoubtedly higher today.

In the United States we have recently set the record for the longest economic expansion in history. The expansion has now continued for 121 months.

This raises the question as to why the Fed is easing monetary policy and on the verge of cutting rates?

A big part of the reason appears to be the fact that almost everyone else in the world is doing the same. How can the United States be tightening or maintaing the status quo when everyone else is easing?

Of course, would any of this be possible if inflation were not so benign throughout most of the world?

Against this backdrop the S&P 500, the Dow and the NASDAQ 100 hit all-time highs last week.

Low interest rates. Low unemployment. Low inflation. A surging stock market. Millions of people wanting to come to the United States.

It is hard to imagine it gets much better than this.

Yet we still hear every day from so many how terrible it is too live in the United States?

That is undoubtedly the most difficult thing to understand of all.

One of these days I predict there will be many who will long for the good old days of the Trump administration between 2017-2019.

My biggest fear is that too many people will realize that fact way too late.