Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The LEO Quiz
Take LEO's 2006 Holy Crap Did That Really Happen? Quiz. Then see how you did.
Why you're always broke
Here's some sobering news to help un-swell your head from being named Time Magazine's Person of the Year: Nonprofit family-advocacy group Families USA conducted a state-by-state study showing why you're so broke all the time. It's not that RazrBerriPodCorderTooth you've always got sticking out of the side of your head while driving your Cherokee to the Speedway for SlimJims. And it's not your porn addiction. It's not even the $2.50 gas coming out of the newly democratic Middle East. No, it's health insurance!

The study shows what everyone with a poorly perforated paystub knows: that insurance premiums are rising much faster than earnings. From 2000 to 2006 (what future historians will refer to as "The Rove Years"), premiums rose almost four times faster than earnings. On average, family health care premiums rose by 68.3 percent, while median earnings rose by only 17.6 percent. The average Kentucky family-plan annual premium rose from $7,096 to $11,944, an increase of $4,848.

$11,944! Hellfire, that's enough to treat yourself to an angioplasty and have enough left over for a post-procedure Chili Cheese Bacon 'n' Swiss Thickburger from Hardee's on the way home. And because employers pay an average of about nine grand of that price, the dramatic increase is putting the serious hurt on businesses too.

It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that health insurance premiums are rising a lot faster than income. It takes a Families USA researcher. Between 2000 and 2006, the median earnings of Kentucky’s workers increased from $21,512 to $25,306. So let's do the math. Let's see, $25 grand minus … carry the one… and what's left over is approximately "Oh, poop."

At least with all this pricey insurance, we can count on excellent coverage when we're sick, right? Well, of course not. The study cites a trend toward "thinner coverage," which is a corporate euphemism for higher deductibles, more co-payments, and much greater cost-sharing on hospitalization and prescription drugs than families paid in the '90s when … ahem … cough, cough… some good ideas about health care reform were bouncing around the White House, only to be squashed by the health-insurance lobby.

In fact, the study showed that more than one quarter of INSURED Americans report problems with medical bills and paying off medical debt. And more than half a million working-age Kentuckians have no health insurance.

The study concludes, "If this trend continues, more and more families will inevitably join the ranks of the uninsured and underinsured, and Kentuckians will face diminishing economic and health security. This crisis will only worsen until there is national leadership in Washington, D.C. that takes decisive and meaningful action to make health care truly affordable and accessible to all." Courageously, there was no closing mention of simian primates flying out of any rectums. The co-pay on getting that fixed is brutal.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Biofuel River Don't Run Dry
With the world's oil reserves running out and the world's people hating our consumptive guts, Americans are scrambling to find an alternative to that sweet, delicious, intoxicating fuel that powers the vehicles that hold the bumpers that display our flag decals. There are enough promising futuristic alternatives to gasoline (hydrogen fuel cells, nuclear Segways) being bandied about to make a Battlestar Gallactica fan weep onto her Wired Magazine. But there are some exciting fuel alternatives gaining traction here today.

One of those is biodiesel, an aromatic concoction of renewable, non-toxic vegetable oils that can be burned in conventional diesel engines. Biodiesel is biodegradable, has fewer emissions than regular diesel when burned, and comes primarily from soybeans, which is Kentucky's fourth-largest cash crop after marijuana, corn squeezins and tobacco. Appropriately enough, small-farm champion and hookah enthusiast Willie Nelson has his own blend of biodiesel, called BioWillie. And Kentucky is offering BioWillie manufacturer Earth Biofuels $1.12 million in tax incentives to build a refinery in Fulton County. The plant would produce 30 million gallons of BioWillie per year, employ 50 workers, and provide markets for local farmers and comedians for years to come.

Beside the environmental, economic, political and comedy advantages, BioWille also exudes the pleasant smell of doughnuts, according to, which should appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans. (In a cute Crabtree-&-Evelyn-esque tangent, the site goes on to explain that biodiesel is easier on mechanics' hands, protecting them from "cracking and redness." Aw.)

There may be drawbacks to biodiesel, although it's hard to trust the veracity of any report that criticizes a product that competes with the oil industry. Possible negatives: The fuel can gel in cold weather, be slightly higher in particulate emissions, and not run well in all current diesel engines. And there's this niggling little problem: rising soybean demand contributes to deforestation, particularly in South America, where soy plantations are replacing old-growth forest at an alarming rate.

Currently, BioWillie is available mainly to big-rig drivers and those humongo Ford, Dodge and Chevy pickup trucks that seem to be popular at soccer matches (sumbitches'll git up 'n' haul!). And while diesel cars are all the rage in Europe, only Volkswagen and Mercedes currently offer models widely available in the US. Still, with the Middle East Bushwhacked, the world's oil reserves dwindling, and American energy policy decision-makers as indecisive as a stoner at Krispy Kreme, give Willie – and the Commonwealth of Kentucky - some props for trying to make a difference.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Big Rock Candy Mountain
Like all weeks, last week was a tough week for poor people. Three new reports came out, showing that it's not all Double Mocha Cappuccinos and Chicken O'Tenders for everybody in George Bush's America.

If you're a kid in Kentucky (and you don't have access to a laser printer for printing your own counterfeit $20s) there's a one-in-five chance that your life is pretty hard. The new "Kentucky Kids Count" report shows that 22% of Kentucky's children live in poverty. Our state consistently ranks among the poorest states in the nation, and the Commonwealth came in 42nd this year (in your face, Mississippi!) out of 50 states in overall quality of life for children. The county-by-county report shows that while kids in Boone, Oldham, Spencer, Calloway and Rowan Counties are livin' large, their counterparts in Clay, Leslie, Martin, Wayne and Cumberland Counties are scraping to get by. Nearly half of all kids live in poverty in those counties.

And while you might think the main culprit is the Commonwealth's consistent lack of adequate funding for education, you'd only be partially right. The report calls out parental smoking as enemy number one for kids, because it leads to everything from low birth weight to poor health to having to constantly traipse down to Tobacco Road to get momma a pack of Luckies. It's a woeful, self-perpetuating cycle for far too many Kentucky children.

At least the American Dream still beckons from the 'burbs, right? Wrong. Across America, poverty is no longer a problem just for inner-city and rural areas. According to a new Brookings Institution report, the suburbs now have more people living in poverty than inner cities for the first time ever -- at least one million of them. Suburban Louisville's poverty rate rose from 8.8 to 9.1 from 1999 to 2005, but some cities' rates are as high as 40%. If you find the sight of those guys holding up "Will Work For Food" signs in the shadow of Holiday Manor Shopping Center unsettling, consider this warning: experts predict increasing crime, crumbling infrastructure, and other socioeconomic problems that are traditionally the domain of cities, to start afflicting the suburbs.

So where did all the money go? To the rich! According to a new report from the UN's World Institute for Development Economics Research, the richest two percent of people own over half of the world's wealth. And the richest one percent own over 40% of the world's wealth, and that's not even counting Oprah. Guess where most of them live: America! If you think times are tough in Middletown, try living in India, where average wealth (assets minus debts) is $1100 US.

So, where's the good news in all of this? Maybe this: If you own $61,000 in personal assets, you're among the top 10% of the world's richest people. Give yourself a pat on the back. And next time you pass that homeless dude in Hikes Point, slip him a fiver.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Abucket Ghraib
Remember the blockbuster internet movie showing workers at a KFC supplier torturing chickens to near-Passion-of-the-Christ proportions? That movie, in which the slaughterhouse workers bashed live chickens against a wall, spit tobacco in their eyes, painted their faces, tore their heads off and did everything but read to them aloud from Angie Fenton's "The Buzz" column, prompted Yum's David Novak – the Donald Rumsfeld of the chicken world – to institutes some major anti-torture changes at KFC suppliers. Or did it? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says no. In fact, KFC's own Animal Welfare Advisory Panel says no.

As a people, we've come a long way from the good old days when the last thing a chicken thought before going to that great coop in the sky was, "Oh-oh, here comes granny with the machete." In today's factory-slaughterhouses, workers shackle birds (not just KFC-bound birds) alive, paralyze them in electrically charged water baths, slit their throats while they’re still conscious and remove their feathers in tanks of scalding-hot water. And some of this happen with TVs within earshot, increasing the odds that the chickens could hear those Peace, Love, Gap commercials.

If you're a KFC consumer, PETA wants you to boycott the chain. And if you're a Yum shareholder, PETA wants your help in making sure KFC chickens get fingered humanely. So PETA took the fight inside Yum by buying 180 shares of stock, not only gaining a voice in company policy but also giving some lucky stockbroker a great story to tell at the bar after work. As a shareholder, PETA has now filed a resolution demanding that Yum explain to shareholders how it's going to implement KFC's own animal-welfare recommendations -- which are almost two years old and being ignored, prompting five advisors to quit in frustration. To keep abreast (pa dum pum!) of the whole chicken-chokin' saga, visit the PETA site