Thursday, June 28, 2018

Snoopy, Hang On!

Insurance company MetLife Inc. has begun using computerized analytical tools to coach its call center operators on how to interact with customers. 
When I read that two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal’s regular feature frighteningly named “The Future of Everything”, it made me laugh, made me sorrowful, and made me think for a very long time about the state of the relationship between man and machine.  Using computers to analyze “things”—I can accept that.  But the software employed by MetLife “listens” to the conversations between customers and employees—“the conversational dance” as the behavioral science officer at the software design company called it—and coaches the employees in real time on how to enhance the interaction.  This could include prompts to be peppier if the agent is perceived by the computer as not being energetic enough or might even cue the agent to act more empathetically, based on the computer’s perception of the caller’s emotional state.
Pardon me, but aren’t those skills we should expect people to possess without needing a machine to tell them how the other person in the conversation is feeling?  And how genuine is the empathy offered only after being prodded by a machine?
To my thinking, this trend owes to society’s growing dependence on computers rather than human interaction, the prevalence of screen time over face-to-face time.  Instead of playing a game of baseball in the vacant lot with some neighbor kids, a child sits alone with a computer game for hours on end.  Instead of attending a funeral, we send online condolences.  When a friend is down, we send an emoticon in a text message and think that our duty to that friend is done.  We are losing the art of interacting with each other in any but the most superficial and meaningless ways.  How do we learn to get along but by interacting in ways that demand our attention and require effort and empathy?  Is it any surprise we so often hear the plea these days, “Can’t we all just get along?”  Well, no; not if we’re absorbed in entertaining ourselves and posting selfies, waiting for our online “friends” to comment on them.
It would be a comical irony, did it not raise such a disturbing thought, that the name of the company that designed the program used by MetLife is Cogito.  As in the Latin verb form “to think”.  As in the philosopher Rene Descartes’ proposition “Cogito ergo sum”: “I think, therefore I am.”  So if the machine is doing the thinking and we react, do we then cease to be?  Or at the very least, are we less human?
In 2016 MetLife abandoned its 30-year marketing program that featured Snoopy and the Peanuts cartoon strip characters.  At the time, wrote that “A major driver for the rebrand was MetLife’s polling of some 55,000 customers worldwide, when the company learned that many people feel overwhelmed by how quickly things change in today’s world.”  The new tagline, new logo, and supposedly new approach to doing business were all meant to reflect the company’s “partnership with its customers”.   And just who, or what, is it that’s “partnering” with the customers?
Perhaps MetLife is just trying to work with the hand it has been dealt: a new generation of workers who have no idea how to engage in a real conversation without the aid of technology, or how to read social cues.  For that, I can’t blame MetLife.  But it’s a shame that these workers could not be more like the comic strip characters, playing baseball together, chatting at the school bus stop (without smartphones), starting a business like Lucy’s psychiatry kiosk (which was all about talking to each other), or any of the other dozens of ways the characters learned about life in their two-dimensional world.
I miss Snoopy, MetLife.
Until next time,
But Jesus, on His side, did not trust Himself to them—for He knew them all.  He did not need anyone to tell Him what people were like: He understood human nature.” John 2:24, 25, Phillips*
*Copyright 1972 by J.B. Phillips

Friday, June 8, 2018

Medicare is Broken

It’s in the news again, the annual report by the trustees of the Medicare and Social Security programs; and it’s even more depressing this year than last.  The trustees conclude that the trust fund for hospital expenses will run out of money by 2026, three years earlier than last year’s report projected.
Basic Medicare is divided into Part A, covering hospital expenses, and Part B, covering physician bills, labs charges, etc.  There’s also Part C which is Medicare Advantage and Part D, prescription drug coverage.  Part B is funded mostly by the premiums charged to beneficiaries each month, typically deducted from the Social Security check of those aged 65 and older.  The current monthly premium is about $134 and is subject to adjustment each year.  Part A, on the other hand, is funded by the money withheld from workers’ wages at a rate of 1.45% and matched by 1.45% from the employer.  That formula leaves funding uncertain because a recession or other factors can reduce payrolls and thus the amount of money collected for the trust fund.  And that is part of the reason for the poor balance sheet.
But the other factor is the rocketing cost of health care itself.  Expensive therapies, pricey new drugs, the reliance on specialists rather than primary care providers, plus the growing demand for services as the nation ages all cause the trust fund to fall farther behind each year.
I’m not alone in blaming Congress and a string of presidents dating back to the 1960’s for not fixing this problem (none of them could believably claim he didn’t know about it) and kicking this can down the road, hoping we don’t notice (apparently a pretty safe bet) or that they have retired from office before the day of reckoning.
This is very much a personal finance issue.  When you retire and no longer have health insurance through your employer (if you ever did—many don’t), your options are Medicare (or some very fortunate few with another plan through a union or longtime former employer like the federal government) or a private policy that is either prohibitively expense or simply not available.  So what can you do?
This is not something you can solve alone.  It will take national action to effect change.  I’m not encouraged at that prospect when the treasury secretary optimistically observed this week that the program is solvent “well into the next decade”.  Nice choice of words, but only a fool or a bureaucrat would say such a thing. Would you be optimistic and confident if you knew you were going bankrupt in eight years?  But you can definitely be a part of the change.  I would urge everyone to take these steps:
1. Take good care of your own health by getting exercise, eating properly, getting enough sleep, and doing the recommended preventive actions like regular checkups, immunizations, etc.  This will help reduce your need for more expensive remedies and could lead to financial rewards if Medicare starts offering financial incentives to use primary care over specialist care.
2. Don’t buy into the arguments from special interest groups—even those to which you might belong—that the government needs to spend more money on Medicare.  I largely subscribe to President Ronald Reagan’s explanation: More government isn’t the solution to the problem, it IS the problem.
3. Be open to new and creative ideas for reforming Medicare.  More of the same will not get the job done.  Yet, you’ve heard it before in political debates and I’m sure you’ll hear it again: a candidate floats an idea for reforming Medicare and he gets blasted by the AARP and the opposing candidate for wanting to “do away with Medicare as we know it”.  With Medicare going broke in eight years, it’s probably not a bad idea to do away with Medicare as we know it.
4. Write your senator and Congressman to urge them to act to fix Medicare and to think creatively when doing so.  If Congress sees that constituents care about an issue and won’t vote them out of office for doing something bold (i.e. not just voting a tax increase or doing more of what’s been done before), they might actually respond positively.
Wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise?
Until next time,


“All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23 NIV®*

*Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®
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