Monthly Archives: March 2010

Snail Mail: What’s Killing the Post Office?

Seems you can’t escape these days from having someone jawing at you about health care and medical expenses. That happened to me again this morning while I was chasing the belt on the treadmill. It appears that e-mail isn’t the only problem facing the U.S. Postal Service. Add retiree medical costs to the deficit mix. Say what?

Here’s the back-story. The U.S. Postal Service — required now by law to deliver snail mail six days a week, rain or shine — is proposing to end Saturday delivery as one way to cut a budget deficit that could top $200 billion by 2020. (See Bloomberg News article by Angela Greiling Keane as printed in the Akron Beacon Journal.)

I’m sure there are some businesses and individuals that want and need Saturday mail delivery. But for most of us, c’mon. It’s not critical, and faced with similar circumstances — declining volume and changing customer habits (e-mail, text messaging and so on) — most businesses would make a similar or maybe even more extensive change in its business model.

Yet there really is more to this story than e-mail. And the U.S. Postal Service is being forced to confront an issue today that many other organizations — and private and public — are putting off until tomorrow, if they plan to address it at all. The issue: funding of future retiree medical and pension obligations.

Here’s an interesting perspective from John E. Potter, postmaster general of the United States in an article he wrote for the Washington Post, “Five Myths about the U.S. Postal Service“:

It’s no secret that the Postal Service has been losing money since 2007. What are not well known are the financial demands of the Postal Reform Act of 2006 — demands not faced by the private sector. Though the USPS is self-supporting, its finances are tied to the federal budget because postal employees participate in federal retirement plans. In 2006, Congress required that the USPS prefund 80 percent of future postal retiree health benefits. This will cost more than $5 billion a year through 2016. No other federal agency or private company carries such a heavy burden.

Without the prefunding requirement, the Postal Service would have been better able to weather the recent recession. In 2008, prefunding contributed to a loss of $2.8 billion. Without it, we would have been $2.8 billion in the black.

So it’s not just e-mail or Saturday delivery that’s putting the squeeze on U.S. Postal Service, it’s the so-called legacy or entitlement costs: health care and pensions. And this is going to be one of the dominant issues in the country over the next decade.

Saying that, the U.S. Postal Service is submitting its proposal to government regulators that will contain among other items the request to eliminate Saturday mail delivery.

I heard on CNN — but can’t verify — that the proposal would be submitted via e-mail.

Go figure.

Health Care and Civility: What’s Missing Here?

Well, I managed to spend most mornings this week chasing the belt on the treadmill. And that has given me plenty of opportunity — probably way more than any sensible person needs — to watch and listen to the TV Talking Heads and others opine on the changes involving health care. Gee, maybe we need the government to mandate civility.

Just kiddin’.

But we sure could use some civility these days — and that applies equally to our leaders in Congress and to anyone inclined to hurl a digital missive or a brick.  We’re not going to reach a consensus on health care — or on most other national issues. Maybe agreement — or at least acceptance — comes over time. Maybe not. We’ll see. But the reality right now is that the country is split — with what I believe are some legitimate philosophical differences about the role of government, taxes, immigration and on and on.

I guess that’s why we have elections.

So while we as a nation don’t agree on important issues, could we at least agree on this: Violence isn’t the answer.

I heard someone — the owner of a small business — say that on CNN this morning while I was going nowhere slowly on the treadmill. And during a time of overblown rhetoric and contentious partisan debate, that struck me as a pretty common sense answer to a potentially very dangerous situation. (See “House of Anger,” NYT blog post by Timothy Egan.”)

It was part of a story about the threats that members of Congress have been receiving — and in some cases instances the acts of vandalism that have taken place.  That’s wrong — and it needs to stop now to make sure that it doesn’t escalate.

Like most in this country, I’m a defender of free speech — and one of our great traditions is the willingness and ability to criticize our government and those who serve at the will of the people as elected officials.

But there is a line — maybe defined by civility — that can’t be crossed.

Violence isn’t the answer.

Leadership and Public Policy: Some Random Notes

Well, I’m back. I took a few days off last week to see if I could alter my routine some and post these comments later in the day like normal people. Nope. I find that if I don’t pound the keyboard shortly after pounding the concrete in the early a.m. it ain’t going to happen. Who says I’m a slave to my schedule?

But I can report that yesterday — Sunday — I did do something that for me at least was different. Following my 6 a.m. running tour of the neighborhood I didn’t do much of anything — except sit, snooze, read and watch TV. What a debacle. No, not the health care debate. The total collapse of my NCAA brackets. Sigh.

Anyway, it was interesting — and informative up to a point — to watch the TV Talking Heads opine on the final stages of the contentious health care issue.  And even though the measure finally made its way through the House last night, I expect that I am still like many. I’m not sure whether the planned overhaul of our nation’s health care system is good or bad. And I’m not sure that I could talk specifically about more than a handful of points contained in the legislation even after all these months when the issue has really dominated the news.

But here are some random notes:

  • When it comes to public policy — or about anything else — leadership matters. Whether you believe this health care legislation is a godsend or a curse, it wouldn’t have happened without leadership from (first) Nancy Pelosi and (finally, and almost too late) President Obama. I really believe that history will point to Pelosi as pushing this through at a time when the White House was willing to scale back the legislation and settle for a small gain.
  • Credit the Republicans with leadership as well, both in the House and Senate. I’ll admit that I would have felt better about this if at least a few Republicans had jumped up and yelled, yes. The fact that they didn’t — and I heard Chuck Todd say this yesterday on NBC — points to the deep philosophical differences between the two parties. I’m not so sure that this was a case of just saying — no. It was no with a “because” attached. There’s a difference.
  • The success of this reform hinges on two key points: access to health care and cost. As things have turned out, I wonder if the Democrats in Congress and the members of the administration wish they had pushed harder for a public option?
  • It bothers me when I hear lawmakers say we are going to same billions by eliminating waste from existing programs. Has that ever happened? And if there is that much waste currently, shouldn’t somebody be doing something about it now? Go figure.
  • Will this really be the defining issue in the mid-term elections? Probably in a number of congressional districts but not all. Something tells me that come November we’re still going to be talking about jobs. That’s an issue that most of us understand.

And I guess just one last point.

Now that we’re done with health care, is there anything that can save by NCAA picks?

Probably not.

March Madness.

Health Care: Courage, Leadership and Trust

I spent the early a.m. chasing the belt on the treadmill. I could have run outside — but my left foot is sore from the pounding on the concrete over the weekend. And I’m convinced now that this nagging injury isn’t going to get much better and there isn’t any point in going back to see my doctor or physical therapist. Hey, maybe that’s one of the reasons I think so much about health care these days.

And that was a sneaky — although probably not very good — transition to what I was thinking about while modestly elevating my heart rate this morning. After months and months and months and months of talk about health care reform, I was struck by something that was said during President Obama’s visit to Strongsville (near Cleveland) yesterday.

Here’s from The Plain Dealer story by Mark Naymik:

“I believe Congress owes the American people a final up or down vote,” he (President Obama) told an audience at the city’s Walter F. Ehrnfelt Recreation and Senior Center.

Obama said “there is a lot of hand-wringing going on” over the implications of voting for the legislation, when he was interrupted by a woman in the crowd who shouted, “We need courage.”

“We need courage.”

There is plenty of room in this health care reform debate — as with any number of other issues — for honest disagreements on policy and principle. But at some point we need our elected officials to demonstrate some personal courage. That time on health care — ready or not — may be coming this week.

We also need leadership — and the ability to trust elected officials to make decisions that extend beyond their own self-interest.

Courage, leadership and trust.

Those qualities have been absent during much of the debate on what is a significant public issue that will touch all of our lives.

Too bad it took a shout-out in Strongsville yesterday to get us back to considering the importance of courage — and leadership and trust.

March Madness and Medical Maneuvering

I guess it’s a good thing I can’t swim. Otherwise, I’m sure I would always be going against the current — just like in most other areas of life. For instance, I’m not a big fan of starting daylight savings time in mid March. Other than disrupting what little sleep that I normally get, I don’t see the point. At least until the weather improves, I’d rather have more light early morning than early evening.

Saturday morning I hit the concrete early and finished in daylight for the first time in months. Today, back to the darkness of the early a.m.

I know. It’s just me. Unless you have children walking to school or standing around waiting for the arrival of a school bus. I digress as usual.

And I expect that I stand or sit with the minority when it comes to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year as well. I can’t get excited about it — even though I am the defending champ in the Garfield High School pool. Let’s see, among the top seeds: Kansas, Kentucky and Duke.  Sigh. No matter when — or how often — I pick any of those teams, they always manage to disappoint. Wonder if Ohio University can make a run deep into the tournament? Now that I could get excited about.

So saying all that, I guess I’ll sit back this week and watch the real March Madness — as Prez O and his team try to get the members of Congress to pick up the ball and do something about reforming health care. Wonder if they will be able to dribble to the left? C’mon! It’s Monday morning.

Anyway, the Prez is going to be in Strongsville (near Cleveland) today talking about health care as senior members of the administration look to an expected vote in the House this week. And after all these months of debate, lobbying and advertising on both sides, I’m still not sure that many — certainly me — understand exactly what this means in terms of cost, access and the sustainability of programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

And I would feel better about this if it didn’t seem to be so politically charged — with both the Democrats and Republicans keeping a watchful eye on the upcoming mid-term elections while (I hope) reading through several thousand pages of legislation.

Oh well. I might as well stop fretting about that and start considering the NCAA brackets.

Tough decisions — and just like the members of Congress — I’m facing a tight deadline.

Executive Pay and the Designated Hitter Rule

My real-life news delivery guy Bruce dropped this morning’s dead-tree edition of the Akron Beacon Journal on my porch with a thud — even before I made my way out the door early a.m. And I chuckled when I saw the headline on the front page: “Compensation for Goodyear CEO up 40%.”

Wonder if Robert Keegan, Goodyear’s CEO, and the company’s communications staff are yucking it up this morning as well? Probably not. When I was working in PR at Goodrich, these “how much did he/she earn” stories were guaranteed to trigger angst among the highly paid executives and a less-than-pleasant phone call to the senior communications staff member — ah, at one point, me.

And, nah. This isn’t a rant about Keegan and his compensation — listed in the ABJ based on an Associated Press formula as being valued at $14 million for 2009. I own a small number of shares of Goodyear stock — and it strikes me that Keegan has done a decent job during his tenure at the company, certainly better than his predecessor.

Whether Keegan and other executives in business, government, not-for-profit organizations — and increasingly education — are being paid too much, too little, or just right is an open question. And when taxpayer money is involved, there seems to be plenty of room for righteous indignation these days.

And I know that when you are talking about executive compensation in the business world you are touching a lot of bases: performance-based pay and shareholder value, ability to hire and retain executive talent, corporate governance and the independence of board members who set compensation, growing compensation divide between those at the top of the organization and those in the middle and below, and so on.

The view of the Goodrich chiefs was that yes this was public information — but was it really information that the public needed to know about via the front page of the daily hometown newspaper? And I’ve got to admit it. They have a point. By all means, print the information in the business section — but is it really the most important story of the day?

Executive pay to me these days is much like baseball’s designated hitter rule. There are strong opinions on both sides — but not much the average person can do about either.

So I chuckled when I read the ABJ headline.

And began what I hope will be an enjoyable day — knowing that there wouldn’t be any phone calls from the executive offices.

Running, Exercise and Health Care Reform

Well, today is off to a great start. I managed to get outside and hit the concrete at 5 a.m. for my five-mile running tour of the neighborhood. And that’s the first time for me running outside since late January. I’ll admit it. I miss the quiet, the ability to mull things over in my little brain, and the endorphin rush that builds on heart-pounding activity and fresh air.

Saying that, I recognize that I’ve reached the age where I have to make some changes to a routine that has been pretty compulsive set for 30 years. I worry now about slipping and falling — even in good weather. It’s increasingly difficult to get all the body parts working in frigid conditions. And I have a chronic foot injury that ain’t going away. So the reality is that I’m going to be spending more time indoors, chasing the belt on the treadmill and grinding away on the elliptical.

Does that really matter?

Well, in two words: yes and no.

Gina Kolata addressed this issue in her NYT Personal Best column, “Winter Training: Faster and Safer Indoors?“:

The sad answer, exercise researchers say, is that you really cannot get the same training effect with indoor substitutes. That’s not to say that indoor training is useless, but rather that it has real limitations, with differences that sometimes are subtle, but significant.

“I think most athletes know that,” said Peter R. Cavanagh, an exercise researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. “That’s why they are out there in all seasons.”

The most obvious difference with indoor exercise is a lack of wind resistance, Dr. Cavanagh said.

So for those training for a marathon, you might find the transition from the flat surface of the treadmill to Heartbreak Hill a little difficult.

Still, there comes a point where even the elite athletes have to consider an alternative to being outdoors in potentially dangerous weather. From Kolata’s article:

Other athletes say that there comes a point when an indoor alternative is better than a workout in cold, icy weather. That’s what drove Brian Sell to buy a treadmill.

Mr. Sell, an elite marathoner who ran in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, trains in Rochester, Mich. He bought a treadmill four years ago, after he had fallen a few times on icy roads, injuring himself so badly he could not train at all while he healed.

“I probably fall at least once a year here in Michigan,” he said. “My injuries ranged from a bruised hip to a pulled groin. That time it took three weeks to get back. I said, ‘If I was doing this on the treadmill, I wouldn’t have missed three weeks of training.’ ”

Mr. Sell continued, “If it’s really icy out or if it’s negative 10 degrees and you are doing an easy six-miler, it probably makes a lot more sense to do it on a treadmill than to risk hurting anything.”

Mr. Sell — all I can say is woot. I’ve been fretting over this for a month and you’ve made me feel like less of a wimp. Oops. I digress.

Anyway, I read that NYT article about indoor training  last week and thought about it this morning as I pushed off on the concrete. For most of us, in the long run, does it really matter how we exercise? Nope. The key is to just keep moving — and as I get older, I’m convinced that is more and more important. Do something. Do it consistently. And hey, so something that you enjoy — for as long as you can.

And as evidence, consider this article in the NYT by Jane Brody, “Even More Reasons to Get a Move on“:

In a commentary on the new studies, published Jan. 25 in The Archives of Internal Medicine, two geriatricians, Dr. Marco Pahor of the University of Florida and Dr. Jeff Williamson of Winston-Salem, N.C., pointed to “the power of higher levels of physical activity to aid in the prevention of late-life disability owing to either cognitive impairment or physical impairment, separately or together.”

“Physical inactivity,” they wrote, “is one of the strongest predictors of unsuccessful aging for older adults and is perhaps the root cause of many unnecessary and premature admissions to long-term care.”

They noted that it had long been “well established that higher quantities of physical activity have beneficial effects on numerous age-related conditions such as osteoarthritis, falls and hip fracture, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, cancer, diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, low fitness and obesity, and decreased functional capacity.”

Prez O and members of Congress appear to be nearing the finish line on some form of health care reform. And I’ll admit that I would be hard pressed to opine with any certainty on what the latest proposal(s) contain — despite the millions of words that have been written and spoken on the subject.

So I wonder if the reform measures take into account the benefits of exercise — and what effect keeping people out of the health care system could have on costs, access, treatment and so on.

If they don’t, we’re missing an opportunity. Exercise, whether indoor or out, matters to all of us.