Christmas at Sears & Roebuck

Going to church on Christmas Eve - a 1911 vint...
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“The Sears catalog serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living. The roots of the Sears catalog trace back to the Homestead Act of 1864 and are as old as the company. By the early 19th century, the Sears catalog had become known in the industry as ‘the Consumers’ Bible’. In 1933, Sears, Roebuck and Co. produced the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the “Sears Wish book”, a catalog featuring toys and gifts and separate from the annual Christmas Catalog. The catalog also entered the language, particularly of rural dwellers, as a euphemism for toilet paper. In the days of outhouses, the pages of the mass-mailed catalog were often used as toilet paper.” Wikipedia and Sears Archives

In a time before mailboxes vomited forth daily streams of mass-marketed catalogs, Sears stood mightily as the most evolved holiday mass marketer.  The Sears Christmas Catalog’s arrival heralded the first day of an Advent season teeming with material wants.  Any hope of a deeply spiritual holiday experience was defiled by the arrival of the Consumer’s Bible. One had to merely open the first page of this Domesday-sized registry and immediately fall under its mistletoe spell. Each page of the journal was jammed with adult gumdrops and candied children’s gifts – each sweeter and more contemporary than the next. It was an age of inventions, innovations and space exploration. In material America, the Sears catalog offered an adult primer on how one might improve their circumstances and with each purchase you moved more comfortably into a cocoon of creature comfort. To a kid, it was literally an inventory of every item warehoused within St Nicholas’ bag.   

Each December, my mother would award us a different colored pen with instructions to circle items in the Sears catalog that we felt might best capture Santa’s imagination. The guide pushed everything from guns to garden hoses.  Sears even sold elevated pools that one could fill up with water straight out of a garden hose.  My father dismissed the pools as “tacky.”  If tacky meant awesome, then I agreed.  I quickly circled the 10’ by 20’ plastic monstrosity replete with its heavy duty, micro-resin safety ladder and pool skimmer.  The children playing inside of the pool seemed to be having so much fun. They were not attempting to drown one another or disable the pool skimmer by tying its flickering tail into knots. They were playing with a bright, overblown beach ball – – the kind of ball we owned for perhaps a total of 12 seconds – before it was bitten by an animal or burst under the weight of an overzealous kid. Swimming pools? This was California at Christmas.  The temperature outside was stretching up to 75 degrees on Santa Ana winds.  I would be swimming by New Years.

Christmas shopping was indeed a burden on the entire family.  My parents fought over who would brave Bullocks department store or the chaotic parking lots of Sears. There were no formal Black Fridays but December still meant a tidal wave of yuletide commercialism that swept over every family.  Glowing televisions barraged children with images of toys and games. “ I want that for Christmas, I want that for Christmas…” my younger brother would repeat as a dull mantra while Mattel and Milton Bradley streamed images of toy ovens making real chocolate cakes and rockets that would fire 1000 feet into the air and float harmlessly – avoiding every tree branch – to land safely back in your postage stamp garden. The world was drunk on Christmas cheer and American materialism.  Cherry red garlands stretched across city streets while residential pines, magnolias and oaks transformed into colorful beacons that whispered,” buy, buy, buy”.

There were no malls.  Department stores dominated the retail landscape and were the epicenters of consumer spending. Bullocks, Sears, Fedco, JC Penny, Woolworth’s and a host of ancient forgotten family run enterprises competed for the hearts and minds of America’s mothers.  These matriarchs of merriment shouldered the role of Mrs. Claus along with other thankless indignities borne in the waning days of 60’s chauvinism. Moms got the short end of the candy cane – getting to purchase the shirts, socks, sweaters, and practical items that were opened and rapidly discarded into detritus mounds of paper and boxes.  Given that fathers were rarely present during the week, mothers were responsible for consolidating the myriad irrational requests into a practical Santa list that would guarantee surprises but not sink a fledgling family into the darker waters of consumer debt. Armed with the Sears catalog, she outfitted my father with the requisite shopping list and shoved him out into the confused mayhem of Sears.

Sears was the epicenter of our retail activity.  The massive store had no windows and seemed to devour you once you entered its massive doors.  The Chicago merchants that once sold mail order buggies and horse feeders were now focused on bricks and mortar discount pricing and in a time of economic uncertainty, the store was constantly overrun with shoppers.  My father loathed shopping.   It was if God, himself, was testing him like Job.  He would make a line for an open counter only to be cut off by an ancient do-it-yourself handyman who could not understand why the nice young lady at the bedding register could not help him find a number 6 Allen wrench. As my father squirmed restlessly waiting to purchase some pink hand towels, my brothers and I were melting into clothes racks, jumping on beds, snapping towels and chasing one another with throw pillows.

Occasionally, my father would come unglued and hiss for us to stop the “grab-ass”.  Grab-ass was a highly technical term to describe any anti-social behavior worthy of punishment.  Grab-ass usually preceded the spanking of one’s ass – – which was not a pleasant experience.  In the 1960’s, you could publically whack your child.  Another father might even come over and congratulate you on your technique. However, the nuclear option of spanking also meant a howling child which invited derision from sympathetic mothers. To avoid this disapproval, a father might surreptitiously squeeze your arm until it was purple while reprimanding you with a withering, whispered scream.

The cash registers were crowded like airline counters after a flight cancellation.  My father would stand shifting in place, absentmindedly gripping the arm of my youngest brother who was squirming to get free so he might join us in our Lord of The Flies adventure.  He finally gave up, making an exaggerated sigh and whistled at us like cattle to start moving westward across a crowded appliance department.  My brother immediately opened a refrigerator and attempted to climb inside.  The appliance section was perhaps our favorite place to misbehave with its freestanding toilets where one could mimic the act of urinating – hoping to appall the little old blue haired lady that was perusing the latest innovations from General Electric.  

Inevitably, my father would attempt to purchase items for my mother. She was still hoping like a condemned prisoner that he would clue in to her interests and fashion sense.  It was a losing cause. He was an ex-soldier – pragmatic and utilitarian. He did not realize that many of his “useful” gifts were in fact, symbols of indentured servitude. The new vacuum, the mop, measuring cups and towels might as well have come with a ball and chain.  He was one of a long line of pathetic elves attempting to articulate his love and appreciation for his spouse through the act of gift giving.  It would take him decades to discover that the only thing she wanted was to be left alone with a good book and an old movie.  This was unfortunately not for sale at Sears.  It was simply not in his DNA to understand that women hailed from a different galaxy and tended to attach equal value to the smallest of gestures and the grandest of gifts. They did not shiver with excitement at the sight of a new rolling pin.  

Christmas morning would arrive with a thump like the tumbling of snow off a gabled eave. We descended to a warm living room, crackling fire and Santa gifts that had been artfully hidden from our prying eyes.  We would begin opening presents with civility with the most emotionally mature child agreeing to distribute presents.  Within minutes, protocol was abandoned and fighting would break out as the all powerful gift distributor had morphed into Mussolini and was now refusing to distribute to his siblings because of their attitudes.

My mother would open her gifts last – appliances, towels, night gowns, kitchenware and perhaps an Ann Taylor blouse that was now two sizes too small.  Each boy would watch her with earnest eyes as she would feign wonder at our self-serving offerings – – boxes of See’s Candy (she was dieting), $2 perfume (it was French), Harlequin paperbacks or perhaps a handy item like a penknife or hardboiled egg cup. She would smile and profusely thank us, winking at my father as he proudly displayed yet another hideous tie. She would rise and begin to gather up the paper and clothes cast into selfish heaps as her progeny consumed themselves with toys that would be broken, swapped or disregarded within the week.

She would hesitate, listening to Mel Torme croon of ski hills, snow and romance in far off alpine chalets. She recalled that last December trip to Lake Tahoe with friends – – before she broke her leg skiing, before her husband, before her four boys – a distant star when she was eighteen years of pure anticipation. So long ago, like the echoes of carolers as they turn the corner to serenade another street.

Yes, it was another Christmas.  In the corner by her chair was a tired and torn Sears catalog. It had seen more action than a tree house Playboy magazine and was now merely an artifact of yesterday’s dreams – wishes that would lay dormant for another year.  She secretly made an early new year’s resolution. Perhaps this year, she might get her own colored pen.

Hey T-Rex

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Retired Marine Master Sergeant Thomas Rexwood recently found himself battling an enemy he could not vanquish – the economy. “The damn melt-down caught me with my scivvies down,” growled the decorated veteran of the Korean War. If you ask me, this whole thing is the Chinese and Russians up to their old tricks. They could not beat us on the battlefield so they figured out a way to lend us a rope so we could hang ourselves.

An active 85 year-old father of six and grandfather to fourteen, Rexwood remains an avid outdoorsman –choosing to hunt with the bow and arrow. “The kill is purer with a bow. It’s silent and is the way God meant for us to kill game – and we always eat what we kill, don’t we?” He is nodding in the direction of his eldest son who shakes his head and retells the story of how his father made him eat a city pigeon that he had intentionally shot with a BB gun. “Dad always said, you kill it. You eat it. I just did not think he meant it. That was the most disgusting thing I have ever put in my mouth. But, I never shot anything again with that gun.”

Known as “T-Rex” to his friends and family, the former cop, youth football coach and bar owner needed a job. His popularity among some of his town’s most prominent senior citizens, including the editor of the local paper, landed him in the most unlikely of all positions, giving advice to a new generation of parents on how to raise kids. T-Rex’s conservative, stone-aged style has been nothing short of a sensation in a time of political correctness and kids secretly screaming out for tighter boundaries. Overnight, T-Rex has become the bane of teens and a blue print for beleaguered parents. His throw-back style handbook on parenting, We Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists has sold over 4m copies and earned him a syndicated column where he dishes out advice and insults to the emasculated and overwhelmed. His column is simply entitled “Hey T-Rex”.

“Hey T-Rex, my children are consumed by electronics – iPods, cell phones and personal computers. They literally shut themselves out from the world. They do not come when I call them for dinner, they text their friends at meals and routinely charge music to my credit cards. On family trips, we don’t talk, they just plug in and check out. Signed No Respect

Dear No Respect, go to the hardware store and purchase a rubber headed mallet, a hand towel and a plastic hefty bag. Return home and place the hand towel over the cell phone. Grasp the mallet and smash the towel. Repeat the procedure ten times – all the while smiling at your child and not breaking eye contact. Sweep the shattered electronics into the hefty bag. Next, cover the iPod with the hand towel and ask your child if they would prefer to come to dinner the first time they are called or watch you repeat the procedure. T-Rex

Hey T-Rex, I am pretty certain my 10 year old son is viewing adult images on the Web. What should I do? He seems to always erase his history file and browser cache but I know he is up to something. I recognize he is curious but this is so inappropriate. Gratefully, For Adults Only

Adults Only, go on eBay and order some back issues of the 1971 National Geographic magazine – Lost in Borneo. Give it to your son with the appropriate pages of naked natives earmarked – and tell him that this is how real naked people look. Explain that the first pornographic postcards were Moulin Rouge dance girls created by the WWI French army to be distributed to their soldiers – trying to show them there was actually something worth defending in Paris. It actually had the opposite effect. The entire French First Army deserted on the same night and tried to force their way into the burlesque show.  Explain that when the Visigoths invaded Rome, the Centurions did not hear them coming because they were looking at pornography. Tell him his brain will turn to jello and that he will end up in an insane asylum. Lie to him. Scare him. Humiliate him. Rome rotted from within which is what he will do if he is not careful. First the body parts fall off and then you begin to act like a rabid dog. You know what the authorities do with mad dogs don’t you? T-Rex

Hey T-Rex, My son was caught playing with matches and started a small brushfire in the back of the school. My husband says it is no big deal but I am terrified he could have burned himself or something else. He was experimenting with gasoline, aerosol cans and paint thinner. He could have ended up in the ER with third degree burns. Still Simmering, Burning with Anger

Dear Burning with Anger, build a fire pit in the back yard away from low hanging trees and brush and let him play “Arson Welles” all he wants. Tell him to burn everything he can lay his hands on – starting with all those stupid video games that he no longer plays. Explain that fire is like a wild horse and that it can be domesticated with practice and a garden hose. Teach him to make a molotav cocktail. In the event he is ever involved in urban warfare, it will come in handy. Leave him inside the ring of fire as long as he wants. If you do not catch him playing with matches, then you should be worried. He is a boy and boys are genetically predisposed to pyromania. T-Rex

Hey T-Rex, I cannot seem to get my kids to do any chores around the house. I made the mistake of giving them an allowance but they rarely do the jobs that they are purportedly paid for. They are constantly without money and when they have it, I am worried they have stolen it from one another or from my wallet. When I grew up, I had to get my chores done (for free) before I could leave the property. Is it me or is it this generation? Yours Truly, Spineless

Spineless, sorry it took me a while to write back. I was THROWING UP. I don’t even have to meet you to know who you voted for. Allowance is a form of welfare. Cease and desist all forms of payment. That safety net you think you are constructing will become tomorrow’s hammock. Create a list of chores and attach a dollar value to each task. Set a 40% escrow account for all monies earned to help them fund their college education. This gets them used to the notion of no free rides and perhaps they will then value a higher education more. It also gets them used to being in higher income tax brackets which are here to stay. Inspect every job they perform and do not pay for poor performance. Hide your wallet and loose change as a “broke” teen is a criminal in waiting. Tell them if you hear that they are “mooching “ money off of their friends, they will be fined $ 20 to help fund a charity that helps people who really want to work. T-Rex

Hey T-Rex, My son had the audacity to call a cab the other day to pick him up at our house. Apparently, I was not home fast enough for him to meet his friends in town. Aside from the optics of a 14 year old kid calling a cab, whatever happened to walking? Am I out of touch or is he living in a bubble that needs to be burst? Signed, Got Two Legs?

Hey Two Legs! You are missing something else. It is not you who is out of touch, it is your shoe – the shoe that should be wedged up that lazy maggot’s rear end! Cab? Tell “lazy boy” that he has a carbon footprint bigger than China and that by wasting fossil fuels, he is probably putting an RPG into the hands of some sick, twisted fundamentalist who is right now aiming at a US serviceman. He might as well be pulling the trigger, the little ingrate. Have him go upstairs and draw 100 pictures of the American flag and write underneath the star spangled banner: “I am not a traitor, I am not a traitor.” In this man’s army, soldiers first learn to walk. While you’re at it, why don’t you walk to town with him just to show him that you know the way. T-Rex

Hey T-Rex, my son is bringing home straight A’s but he has no social life. He spends the day on Xbox360 with a head set talking to, for all I know, other shut-in teens. He only comes out of his room at night and to go to school. I recently read about a Japanese teen that did not leave his room for two years. When we suggest he get out and see friends or play, he shouts that he just wants to be left alone. Do you think he is depressed? Nervous Nelly

Dear Nelly –  Depressed? Not leaving his room for two years? What kind of boot camp are you running? Sounds like another soft palmed, thin wristed, “mommy, I don’t get enough vitamin D”, suburban pencil neck, pansy. There is a Marine recruitment center off Old Norwalk Rd. I suggest you go down to the basement and grab ol’ Boo Radley and sign his rear end up for the Corps. If we don’t make a man out of him, we will at least show him how to operate heavy machinery with night vision goggles. Tell him that the real world begins at 18 when he is no longer able to live like a leech attached to your apron strings, home cooking and healthcare coverage to age 26. Throw him a party and then throw his clothes out on the lawn. Now I’m depressed! – T-Rex

Thomas Rexford can be reached at His second book, What Did You Just Say? – Ten Ways To Discipline Your Kid is due out in time for Christmas.

A Veteran’s Day for Red Ormsby

Ty Cobb (297 triples) and Shoeless Joe Jackson...
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This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.  ~Elmer Davis

In 1934, the Great Depression had cast a shadow across the entire United States like the great plumes of scorched earth that choked out the sun in the dust bowl of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle.  An estimated 20% of the US population was unemployed.  Agrarian and industrial communities alike were struggling to stay afloat – swimming against the riptide of geographic turmoil and economic uncertainty.

It was a hard time to be a veteran – particularly a veteran of WWI where a nation’s memory of war was fading to be replaced by more domestic and immediate concerns.  Names like the Somme, Verdun and Ypres that had carved deep and visible scars across the psyches of an entire generation of Europeans were but distant echos and accoustic shadows from fairy-tale, haunted lands with names like  Belleau Wood and The Argonne.   The fighting had taken its toll on our young country whose brawny idealism had been wounded by the machinery of modern warfare. This was a new kind of conflict fought in trenches and against an unseen and lethal enemy.  There were battles with 90% casualty rates fought with such vicious ferocity that men often simply disappeared under a barrage of artillery.  Victories were sometimes measured in yards of ground. It was a new generation of guns, germs and steel that would serve as a chilling prelude to a next great war that would claim 20m souls. Yet, for those who lived through it, The Great War was like a brief and violent storm whose lessons were endured and then set aside like so many badges of youth, tucked away and forgotten – along with the memories of 320,000 casualties marked by monuments of those missing, killed and wounded.  It spared no one including those young immortals in pinstripes playing America’s greatest game – baseball.

Emmit “Red” Ormsby was born on April 3, 1895 in Chicago, Illinois.  He grew up as a physical force of nature – enjoyig all sports but excelling at baseball.  As a strapping right hander who mixed an above average fastball with a delightfully wicked spitball, he opted to play semi-pro ball in 1912 for Green Bay in the Wisconsin-Illinois Minor Leagues. Red pitched well enough to graduate into a starting rotation of St Paul in the American Association. That year, he shined hurling several complete games while racking up impressive stats  – – a dominant ratio of strikeouts to hits and fewer earned runs. Red was going places and baseball was his meal ticket.

In 1914, war broke out in  far off places like the Dardenalles of Turkey and along wispy meandering rivers in Belgium and France.  By 1917, the US had been drawn into the conflict and Red had not hesitated to do his duty – he joined the Marines.  At Quantico, he briefly played on an armed forces baseball team along another green recruit, all-star second baseman Eddie Collins.  He was quickly shipped off to France with the Fifth Corps– a fighting unit that would soon be decorated for valor in several battles including the decisive Argonne Forest campaign. 

In the Argonne, Red’s strong arm earned him a spot on the grenade throwers roster.   Grenaders  were essential elements to bolster the conventional fire power of infantry units.  The massive Allied offensive in the Argonne would include confusingly close hand to hand combat with trench lines sometimes exchanging hands multiple times across a no man’s land as short as 25 feet.  If the bloody stalemate was to be broken, the Allied Expeditionary Force under General “Black Jack” Pershing would need to be its catalyst.

In what would go down as the bloodiest campaign to date in Marine Corps history, the Argonne became a killing field shattered by unsurvivable enfilading machine gun fire, errant artillery and a deadly swirling ground fog of poison mustard and phosgene gas.  On a late Autumn afternoon, Ormsby had infiltrated toward the front lines of the fighting — preparing for a suicidal offensive when he was wounded in the back.  In addition to this injury, he was overwhelmed by poison gas which partially seared the lining of his lungs.

Ormsby would survive his encounter with the Germans and return to the US as a decorated veteran.  His injuries eliminated any possibility of his continuing to compete as a player.  Yet, his love of the game, could not move him away from the cut grass and red dust diamond.  Red Ormsby decided to become an umpire.

Over the next 19 years, Ormsby would rise to become one of baseball’s premiere umpires including presiding over four world series and league championship series.  Ormsby had a booming voice that sounded “ like two steam ships bickering for their right of way along a lakefront.” He was also master and commander at home marrying and fathering a dozen children. Like many veterans, his injuries never fully healed and he spent his entire career suffering from severe back pain.  In the days before unions or employment protections, workers understood that the inability to perform one’s job –  even as a result of temporary disability or illness – essentially meant unemployment.

According to his grandson, Red secretly donned “a back brace in almost every game he umpired for 19 years. Nobody in the American League, except the other umpires knew about his back. If the league front office had known about it, he wouldn’t have been umpiring. If they had checked the records at Hines Veterans Hospital they would have seen that he was listed as 74 percent incapacitated. But with straps and braces of an umpire, nobody could tell and if they did, they never said anything.”

On this day at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, it was hard to tell that the depression was still raging like a fever across America’s working class. The stands were filled to capacity as the White Sox were squaring off against the hated Detroit Tigers. Birdie Tebetts was catching for Detroit with catcher Mike Tresh catching for the White Sox. Ormsby was calling the game from behind home plate and he was in pain. Author and historian C. Brian Kelly chronicled Ormsby’s story in a November, 2006  Military History magazine article that described the veteran umpire’s difficult circumstances. “During the depression, an injured day off work was tantamount to a pink slip. A good American League umpire could make up to $300 a month, according to catcher Birdie Tebbets – a tidy sum in those days. ‘With 12 mouths to feed, we all knew that Red Ormsby needed his job. On that particular day, we were not about to see him lose it.”

Tebbets could tell that Ormsby was hurting and laboring to breathe.  The scarring on his lungs from the phosgene gas was now regularly impeding his ability to catch his wind. It was on this day, according to Kelly, that Tebbets and Tresh caught the best games of their careers when they threw this disabled veteran ump a lifeline.

“A guy hit a ball up the right field line and Emmett ran up the line to make the play. When he came back to home plate, he said, ‘‘Birdie, I’m getting very dizzy and can’t see the ball right now. It’s  from my Army (injury) thing and don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to quit as I’ll probably lose my job.”  For the first time in Tebetts career, an umpire was actually admitting to being blind.

“I said, ‘look Red, you just sit tight and when I raise my right hand after the pitch, it’s going to be a  strike. If I raise my left glove, it’s gonna be a ball.’ Sure enough, the pitch came in and I raised my right hand. ‘ S-T-R-I-K-E!’  bellowed the veteran umpire. And we went through the hitters this way until the end of the inning. “

It was now Tresh’s turn and he did not hesitate to replicate the secret pitch call code for Ormsby.  For the next several innings, both catchers called the game until Ormsby recovered his breath and vision.  At one point in the sixth inning, Tebbets saw Ormsby lean in and whisper something to the White Sox catcher.  The following pitch, Tresh did not raise his hand.  Red Ormsby was back in charge of the game.

Years later, Tebbets revealed this story in an amusing biography,  Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad.  Tebbets shared that he would never expect that kind of relationship between players and umpires to exist in today’s free agent, self-centered game.  “But in the 30’s and 40’s, it was a different place and time.  We looked out for each other.”

For Red Ormsby, father of 12 and World War I veteran, there was never any doubt about duty – – to his family, to his country and to his sport. He ruled across a 19 year diamond studded universe of all-stars like “Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Bitsy Bobby Shantz, Leo Durocher, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Babe Ruth, Jack Dittmer, Joe DiMaggio and others. ‘Ty Cobb,” he would say, was the greatest of them all.”

Emmit “ Red” Ormsby was just one of many veterans who gave so much and then came home just to “get on” with his life.  He did not expect anything in return for his service – except  perhaps a chance to work.  On that day, Red’s umpiring career was in jeopardy at Comiskey Park. It was only when two wily catchers found a way of paying back an aging veteran that they added yet another colorful footnote to humanity and to the grand narrative of America’s greatest game.

The War Between The States

US House of Representatives Voting Map for HR3962
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Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it.  ~Richard Lamm

The day after a mid-term tidal wave of anti-incumbency sentiment swept through Congress resulting in the GOP reclaiming a controlling majority in the House and closer parity in the Senate, a seemingly contrite President Obama took personal responsibility for his party’s dismal showing at the polls. In a carefully worded conciliatory message, the President shared that, “the American people have made it very clear that they want Congress to work together and focus their entire energies on fixing the economy.”

Newly minted House Majority leader, John Boehner, subsequently reconfirmed that the GOP would not rest until Congress had reined in government spending.  This would be partly achieved by deconstructing the highly unpopular and “flawed” Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – a “misguided” piece of legislation that would actually increase costs for employers thereby reducing the nation’s ability to jump-start an economy that relies on job creation and consumer spending. In Boehner’s mind, government is not unlike the average American, overweight – it’s budget deficits bloated by the cost of financial bailouts, Keynesian stimulus spending and failure to discuss the growing burden of fee for service Medicare.

The President’s failure to acknowledge healthcare reform in his speech was interpreted by many as deliberate and only served to cement the perception that in Washington, it will impossible to have constructive dialogue around the imperfections and potential unintended consequences of PPACA. The White House’s resolve to defend its hard-fought healthcare legislation is likely to extend the polarizing partisanship that has come to characterize Congress. The impasse may very well spark a two-year period of bruising, bellicose finger-pointing over how to fix rising healthcare costs.

The absence of a veto proof majority leaves the GOP in a position of holding high-profile hearings and tendering symbolic legislation designed to expose PPACA’s limitations and its failure to address the core problem – medical inflation and its principal drivers.  The Obama administration and a Democratic Caucus will work to redirect legislative attention to the economy while working to protect the core elements of their health legislation – expanded and subsidized access for some 30M Americans, tighter regulation of insurance coverage and underwriting and an ambitious expansion of the role of Health & Human Services as a national oversight agency.  It seems that “reforming” reform may end up unlikely inside the Beltway setting the stage for regulatory skirmishes across state legislatures. We may very well look back on this period leading up to the 2012 Presidential elections as “The War Between The States”.

Healthcare civil war will result in intense competition for dollars.  Internecine fighting will flare across all lines – – between primary care physicians and specialists, community and teaching hospitals, brokers and insurers, employees and employers, as well as state and Federal regulators. Every stakeholder believes they are part of the solution, adding integral value to healthcare delivery.  Meanwhile consumers cling to the notion that the best healthcare is rich benefits delivered through open access networks where no administrative obstacle gets in between the consumer and the care they believe they need. The question becomes who is fit to referee and regulate this highly radioactive food fight.

PPACA MLR Regs May Reduce Competition – Recently promulgated Minimum Loss Ratio (MLR) legislation will spark a fundamental shift for insurers as they are forced to underwrite locally and account for profits exclusively by license and by state.  In higher loss ratio markets, insurers will need to price to their true cost of risk creating the potential for market volatility. In the past, regional and national insurers routinely redirected profits from lower loss ratio markets to subsidize higher MLR markets. This was particularly true when carriers were entering expansion markets in an attempt to create more competition.  New markets generally meant poorer medical economics for insurers who did not have enough membership to negotiate favorable terms with providers. This led to premiums priced to higher loss ratios and lower profit in an effort to gain market share and increase competition.

With final MLR regulations imminent, competition in certain markets may diminish as smaller market share insurers no longer have the patience or economic staying power to build membership.  If the threat of high loss ratios persisting in markets where rate increases cannot be approved, an insurer may attempt to withdraw from less profitable lines of business or a particular geographic market prompting a rebuke from a local insurance commissioner or HHS.  Insurers will now be constantly weighing the cost/benefit of a public fight that may taint their ability to do business in an entire state.

A New Type of Non Profit Insurer ? – In the Midwest, a different battle is brewing as Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), the powerful Illinois based non-profit Blue, is drawing criticism from consumer groups over its $6B war chest funded by accumulated reserves – reserves that some claim are well above the necessary statutory limits and should be used to reduce premium increases.  Within historical market cycles, non-profit insurers and their reserves have played an important role in moderating medical costs as a non-profit can spend down excess reserves and in doing so, initiate a competitive pricing cycle that squeezes for profit competitors in select markets. Wall Street analysts closely follow insurer pricing cycles often portending lower managed care industry profits when non-profit insurer reserves reach too high a multiple of required reserves.

As hospitals and doctor groups consolidate and the supply side of healthcare repositions in the face of inevitable changes to reimbursement, non profits are recognizing that size and bargaining power matters. In a departure from normal excess reserve driven pricing, HCSC is building reserves, perhaps out of conservatism over an uncertain future or because they are looking for an opportunity to acquire another non-profit.

Should HCSC use excess reserves – essentially profits accumulated in four states – to potentially acquire a non-profit in another state, some regulators and consumer groups may argue that these reserves should be rebated to policyholders.  When a non-profit chooses more conservative reserving,  they give for profit competitors a potential pass from the pressure of having to moderate premiums.  Non-profits play a vital role but are not without their perceived warts. While clear exceptions exist in many markets, criticism of non-profit insurers is often leveled at their utility-like behavior – – limited innovation, bureaucratic insensitivity to customer service and waste.   As these non-profits become tougher and more formidable, they will begin to emulate certain for profit behaviors intensifying the debate in state legislatures over the nature of for profit and not-for-profit insurance.

Some states may condone non profit excess reserving practices – especially if there is a plan for non-profit to for-profit conversion. In these cases, a trust is established to convert the non-profit’s reserves to state control, presumably to be used to impact areas regarding public health.  Given that 80% of every state’s budget is dedicated to either “education, incarceration or medication”, a non-profit conversion can be a boon for a cash strapped state.   Losing a non-profit local insurer to for profit status is hard to explain to consumer advocates pushing for more competition among insurers but easier to ensure reelection by using one time windfalls to finance staggering state budgets.

Medicare Cost Shifting – As reform imposes restrictions on insurer loss ratios, it is also poised to shift more costs to the private sector through Medicare fee cuts – cuts that are expected to generate $ 350B of the estimated $940B of revenues required to cover the $800B price tag of PPACA. Congress, nervous over mounting evidence that added underfunding of Medicare reimbursement would only reduce access to medical services for seniors, has chosen to further delay these cuts in legislation.  The stop-gap delay on cuts known as “Doc-Fix” will challenge the upcoming lame duck session of Congress.  The moratorium on cuts expires in November, 2010, leaving the newly comprised Congress to wrestle with the highly unpopular consequences of further cutting Medicare.  Given that fee for service Medicare costs continue to spiral out of control, each month that Congress fails to pass these fee cuts reduces revenues earmarked to offset the costs of reform – – potentially turning PPACA from a bill that sought to reduce the public debt by $ 140B to a bill that would further increase our national debt by as much as $ 300B.

Regulatory Debates Over Premiums for Indivduals and Small Business– Healthcare civil war will further inflame as public spending in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements are reduced – causing providers to cease accepting patients, ration access and/or cost shift more to commercial insurance. Medicaid already reimburses providers less than 70% of retail costs of care followed by 80-85% by Medicare. Commercial insurance picks up this cost shift currently paying $1.25 for similar services with the most disturbing costs of $2.50 being charged to any uninsured patient uncovered by public or private care. With the new public spending cuts, commercial and uninsured care costs are likely to rise higher. Some insurers estimate unit costs likely to increase to as much as $1.40.

As rising unit costs result in higher medical loss ratios, insurers will raise rates – prompting more state conflicts with regulators seeking to manage the optics of rising insurance premiums for individual and small business. New MLR regulations will require extraordinary underwriting precision as conservative pricing will result in lost market share or the potential for large premium rebates while under-pricing premium will result in the need to raise rates higher and in doing so, risk high-profile battles with regulators as they weigh the political optics of allowing proposed increases. In at least half of US healthcare markets, states have prior approval rate authority allowing them to effectively prevent insurers from collecting premiums required to cover loss ratios in excess of the newly mandated 80 or 85% loss ratio limit. History has taught us that price controls are effective political but ineffective economic levers to address underlying cost inflation.

The first shots of the rate adequacy debate have already been fired in California, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts — all markets who represent a perfect storm of rising medical costs, budget deficits and a firebrand belief that insurers should be highly regulated, non profit utilities. The result has been a rising war of words over the right balance between rate regulation and historical profit margins of insurers.

The seeds of civil war were buidling for a decade prior to the passage of reform. Some industry observers attribute the ill-timed efforts of Wellpoint California to collect a requested 39% increase on its individual lines of business as the spark that rekindled Federal reform.  While the loss ratios in their Individual Medical line of business had clearly deteriorated as a result of declining economy and a loss of healthier membership, Anthem/Wellpoint failed to think across its entire book of business – an insured multi-line block where small group, Medicare Advantage and other lines of business were all generating profits.  The failure to correctly understand the enterprise risk of raising rates – despite their actuarial justification, cost Wellpoint/Anthem and the insurance industry dearly as calls for reform rekindled across the US.  Wellpoint has subsequently resubmitted lower requested rates, accepted higher loss ratios in its individual line of business and taken a hit to earnings.

A Social Contract with States – The for profit insurer conundrum is clear. Providing health insurance carries with it an implied covenant within every market in which an insurer does business.  This social contract suggests that insurers and other for profit stakeholders must be actively demonstrating community stewardship, andthat they are improving the health system, not merely benefiting by its dysfunction. Responsible stewardship is also in the eyes of the beholder – – in this case, regulators, politicians, pundits, consumers, and a range of stakeholders. In the upcoming battles that will wage within each state, it will become increasingly relevant in the court of public opinion that how one makes money in healthcare is as relevant to policymakers as to how much one makes.

A low pressure system is already building over New York, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other blue states as they begin to re-assert their regulatory authority to support federal oversight of healthcare.  Red and blue politics now matters as states will be either guided by an ethos of  “healthcare is a public/private partnership anchored by employer based healthcare and consumer market forces that drive quality and efficiency” or a mindset that “healthcare is in need of radical reform – reform that begins with PPACA and most likely ends with a single payer system acting as the catalyst to drive the least politically palatable phase of healthcare — rationing of resources.”

A Ray of Sunshine ? – There may prove to be a silver lining if certain states become incubators for successful alternative models of delivery. States quick to embrace medical home models that  expand the role of primary care providers may make faster strides to control readmission rates, formulary compliance and emergency room overtreatment.  Additional local regulatory reforms could include all payer reimbursement reform which levels in-patient reimbursement among all payers. There is a need for expanded malpractice reform and a tolerance of compliance based designs that hold those seeking access to subsidized care accountable for greater personal health engagement.

The battles will wage up to the 2012 Presidential elections – – a vote that could very well determine the future of healthcare in America. A Democratic administration is likely to cement basic reforms into place and further placing near term faith in expanded access highly regulated insurance exchanges, rate regulation and the potential trigger of a public option if private plans are unsuccessful in taming medical inflation.  A 2012 GOP win would likely mean revocation of individual mandates, a scaling back of the role of exchanges, greater incentives to preserve employer sponsored healthcare and a focused but modest expansion of Medicaid to cover those most in need of a core level of coverage. The GOP and Democrats alike face a common challenge of tackling soaring fee for service Medicare costs and the eventual need to reshape a healthcare delivery system that is rewarded for treating chronic illness not preventing it.

Most states will be agnostic to the presidential elections, choosing to continue to pass regulations if they feel reforms are falling short of dealing with local access and affordability issues. Only larger employers in self insured health arrangements will avoid the crazy quilt of shifting multi-state regulations.

Robert E Lee once remarked, “it is good that war is so horrible, ‘lest men grow to love it.”  As with war, the politics of reform is a zero sum game.  Achieving savings means someone in the healthcare delivery system makes less money.  The war over healthcare reform will not be popular nor easily understood. Every American will be impacted. Fear and misinformation will rain over the battle field like propaganda. Yet, if we could agree on a guiding vision – improvement of public health, personal responsibility, elimination of fraud and abuse, torte reform, the digitalization of the US healthcare delivery system, the preservation of our best and brightest providers and a system built on incentives to reward quality based on episodes of care, perhaps we may achieve a public/private détente where we focus less on vilifying and more on healing a system, it’s consumers and our unsustainable appetites.

Michael Turpin is Executive Vice President and National Practice Leader of Healthcare and Employee Benefits for USI Insurance Services. USI provides a range of business and risk brokerage, consulting and administration services to mid-sized and emerging growth companies across the US. USI is privately held and is a portflio company of Goldman Sachs Capital Partners.  Turpin can be reached at

The Ballad of Pancho and Kenny

Gimme head with hair

Long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming,

Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there hair

Shoulder length or longer

Here baby, there mama

Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair….

Hair, Broadway production of Hair

In 1968, America was in the throes of social anarchy as legions of bearded beatniks advocated making “love not war”, recreational use of drugs and “stick it to the man” rock and roll.

In this time of clashing values and political unrest, a suburban nuclear family could gratefully distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. The anarchists fit a certain profile: they wore head bands, John Lennon glasses, Birkenstocks sandals, and jacket vests with stitched patches of peace signs, marijuana leaves and phrases like “hell no, we won’t go”.  Yet, the simplest of litmus of tests for identifying a potential  sh*t-stirrer was – –  the length of his hair.

I was taught to fear hippies – although there were very few of them in my neighborhood.  Some of the older kids in our town had started to wear their hair long – really long – over their ears and down past their shoulders.  They looked like girls from the back and seemed to act like them – eschewing sports and always talking about not wanting to fight. If China ever invaded the US, they would probably run away or be too “high on drugs” to even here the tanks coming. They would congregate next to the Shell station or sit on the playground wall after school, smoking cigarettes and shaking their heads as if they were debating how to best blow up City Hall.

The best defense against these social parasites was to unfurl one’s own flag to the world.  As an ex-military man who now pledged his allegiance to the economic and corporate vitality of America, my father felt it was important that his young boys conveyed his values to the world and served as a living example of a home that had kept proper priorities.  His gesture of solidarity to the conservative values of Richard Nixon came in the form of a buzz hair cut.

Once a month on a Saturday morning, my brothers and I would be spirited from our beds to Kenny and Poncho’s local barber shop –  a nexus of conservatism and a great source of personal reaffirmation for my father who often felt besieged after a workweek spent in the chaos of a world tilting on its axis.  As he paraded his four young sons into the four chair, microscopic closet reeking of cologne and talcum powder, a crowd of elderly patriots would momentarily lower their newspapers and nod in approval as my father’s young recruits were declared fit for duty and processed for the future of America.

The door opened with the tinkling of a bell that was hooked above the unstable glass door.  Heavy set Kenny would glance in our direction as he shaped a perfect line the neck of a guy that could have been a stunt double for Jack Webb.  He would look down at us and shake his head with feigned irritation, “You’re late Marines.”  I am not sure Kenny had actually ever served in the military.  From the smell of him, the only action he ever saw was on Friday nights at the local High Brow Lounge. He sported a white barber’s smock that seemed incongruous with his slicked back Elvis pompadour.  You would never catch this oiled manatee without a Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his wry, Southern mouth.

To Kenny and my father, long hair was the enemy.  It was a sign of unrest and confusion. Long hairs were like small Asian countries that if allowed to develop unmanaged would blossom into havens of communism, disease and corruption. Having short hair was a sign of a man’s willingness to subordinate himself to a higher purpose. The disintegration of the Army started with a private’s hair, soon bled into personal hygiene and ultimately tore down the very fabric of society – setting us back to the Stone Age, a dark, godless time of venal pursuits, hand to hand survival and no Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

The actual buzz cut took very little time to administer but garrulous Kenny would prolong the experience – asking you questions intended to embarrass you and make the old men chuckle.  “So you got a girlfriend, sport?” I could see his reflection in the mirror as he looked over my shoulder and winked at a man facing me in the bullpen.  “Well, – – sort of.” I stammered. I lied, not wanting to invite further ridicule.  “Sort of?“ Kenny exaggerated his reaction.  He poked his comb in my direction, “Either you do or you don’t!” My father laughed as Kenny’s brother, Poncho urged him to sit still ‘lest he cut his throat with the straight razor.  My father sighed as Poncho covered his face in hot towels and slapped Club Man Lemon Lime cologne on his cheeks.

The finale of our shearing ritual included having your neck and face wiped with a brush covered in suffocating talcum powder.  The clean up rarely liberated all the severed hairs as they invariably fell down the back of your shirt and clung to your neck causing you to itch until your next shower. I would sit and watch Kenny repeating his rite of passage on three other brothers – their hair tumbling down to the ground like Communists mowed down by a machine gun.

My father would linger at his barber shop man cave – talking politics leavened with rich, blue swear words to underscore his contempt for the state of Congress and the state of the nation.  My older brother would ease drop on the heated conversation as if somehow he might pick up vital intelligence that would help him better conform as the first child in this house fashioned out of rigid political timber.  We would roll out of the barber shop like four freshly minted tennis balls, unconsciously feeling our heads and neck where the peach fuzz of our adolescent hair remained as a silent reminder to our lifetime commitment to this man’s military.

Yet, this was a time of profound change and it became inevitable that shifting social mores and restless adolescence would invade the prehistoric oasis of Kenny and Pancho’s barber shop.  It was a normal autumn Saturday with football in the air.  My father was facing a day of sidelines, yard work, and a briefcase bulging with office work.  I had once again volunteered to be the first to be sheared and had sat down to the October edition of Sports Illustrated when I distinctly heard my older brother give Kenny instructions on how to cut his hair.  I was certain I had just heard him say, “Just leave the side burns”.

There was a moment of palpable tension as several older men lowered their newspapers.  Perhaps Poncho might have even nicked my dad’s throat with the straight razor – – a miscue as rare as Southern California snow. Kenny looked confused. He hesitated and looked over at my father who had started to rise in his chair.  He looked at my brother who simply stared ahead – aware of the consequences he was now setting into motion.

“Since when did you start telling Kenny how to cut your hair?” my father growled.  “Since today.  It’s my hair, you know.” It was like watching a car wreck.  I could not peal my eyes away.  The entire wall of men and boys was now fixated on the barber, the crew cut father and his eldest son.  My father made the next move. “Just the usual, Kenny. Right son?” He leaned back slowly closing his eyes as if the issue had been nipped in the bud. My brother burst with a second countermanding command, “That’s fine, Kenny, but please leave a little more on top and keep the side burns.”

I could have given him the Congressional Medal of Honor that day. He always had it the toughest as the eldest of four boys.  He would spend twenty years breaking in my father and mother to the ways of a world that was counter-cultural to their stiff upper lip, depression era childhoods.  At this precise moment, as a lanky adolescent, banana republic teenager, he was declaring his independence from the tyranny of our Saturday morning buzz haircuts.  It was a beautiful moment.

As with all initial brave acts of independence, his “hair” rebellion was ruthlessly suffocated.  Kenny administered a number 4 razor trim and my brother walked into the autumn morning as clean as a cue ball unable to fit in with a growing subculture of friends whose parents had consented to shoulder length hair. However, the damage was now done.  Within months, my brother was getting his hair cut at a “stylist” – a compromise tendered by my mother to prevent more social unrest.  My father had little use for “stylists” and for any haircut that cost more than $5.

That Independence day was the first fracture in our family unit and perhaps portended the changes that would ultimately consume Pancho and Kenny.  As the 70’s washed over all of us, kids let their hair grow free and the faithful knot of conservative barbershop warriors died, drifted or disappeared.  Kenny and Pancho’s closed and was replaced by, of all places, a hair salon called “The Gates of Spain.”.

Today, my father’s hair is still cut like an Augusta fairway.  He remains a handsome and confident character, a successful retiree who is delighted to see short hair make its comeback.  He smiles as he takes his daily walk at the beach and sees the hundreds of shorn young men looking as if they just completed officer’s candidate school.

Deep down, he knows the majority of them are “slackers” who would not know a hard days work if it were to kick them in the rear end.  Yet, perhaps the short haircuts are a harbinger of a return to simpler things and better times.  Perhaps, we are on the edge of a new epoch when a person’s value is measured not by his poison rhetoric or critical condemnation of his country but by the content of his character and whether or not he creates something of value – – like a good old fashioned buzz cut.