January 31, 2005

Good news from Iraq, Part 20

[Crossposted to the Centrist Coalition blog]

The regular Chrenkoff report on what you don't normally see on the 6 o'clock news.

Good news from Iraq, Part 20

Naturally, much on the elections, including the surprising show of voters in Falluja and Mosul. Also a few things on the election that I haven't found at all elsewhere, like the Turkish press report from the election observers.

Those Uber-Civilized Germans

[Crossposted to the Centrist Coalition blog]

'If you don't take a job as a prostitute, we can stop your benefits'

A 25-year-old waitress who turned down a job providing "sexual services'' at a brothel in Berlin faces possible cuts to her unemployment benefit under laws introduced this year.

Euro-socialism, anyone?

UPDATE: At least partially urban myth, a "planted" story.

January 29, 2005

Health Care: The 800-lb Gorilla

[Cross posted to The Centrist Coalition blog.]

While the Democrats work overtime to shoot down a Social Security reform plan that hasn't even been proposed or detailed yet, there's another crisis waiting in the wings to explode. And for this one, there's no cushion of lead time.

Tax-Exempt Hospitals' Practices Challenged
46 Lawsuits Allege That Uninsured Pay the Most

As the cost of medical care continues to increase faster than economic growth, even the institutions that are supposed to help are taking a very hard line indeed on collecting bills from the uninsured--and charging them more to boot. While insurors negotiate steep price breaks on services, the uninsured are dunned for full "list" price, sometimes as much as six times what an insured patient's bill would be. In times past, the poor's charges would be written off as charity. Now even the non-profits are sending the bill collectors to dun minimum-wage workers for bills they can't possibly pay.

Malpractice suits, insurance companies, high drug costs, boutique clinics, corporate medicine--the list of things and people to blame is endless. But the bottom line is that the system is out of control, and rapidly becoming unaffordable to even those in the middle rungs of the ladder. Health insurance for a family of four has already passed the $10,000 a year mark, and that's NOT including deductibles and co-pays. By far the #1 cause of bankruptcy in America today is medical bills.

Social Security reform, while not cheap, is not complicated. The choices are fairly clear, the finances not all that ambiguous. If we act soon, it can be brought under control without the system imploding. But Medicare isn't running out of tax revenue in 2018. It's running out of revenue NOW, and the overall cost of the program in constant-dollar terms is expected to more than quadruple in the coming years. And that may be an optimistic estimate. One conclusion is inescapable--Medicare can not be reformed without reforming the overall health care system.

In the meantime, fewer and fewer employers are picking up the full tab for medical insurance. And even fewer pay anything at all for the employee's dependents--that's extra. The cost of insurance is severely retarding wage growth, and is the #1 factor cited in "outsourcing" decisions by employers.

Many defenders of the American health care system like to say that we have the finest health-care system in the world. And it's true that American health-care innovation is unrivaled, in drug and technology and treatment development. But outcomes are lagging, as large portions of the populace simply can't afford to access these innovations. We do indeed have the finest for-profit health care system in the world. It's the absolute finest at producing profits. But it's rapidly becoming second-rate at producing outcomes.

I have no easy answers. But I'd love to hear suggestions. How do we cage the 800-lb gorilla? And how can we afford to feed it?

January 25, 2005

Blizzard Blues

Many of the East coast blogs appear to be down this morning, including my favorite haunt of Centerfield.

Hang in there, folks! Two weeks ago I was chainsawing my way off the porch after the ice storm that dropped half the trees in Kansas on my front lawn. Things will get better. Today I'm doing some yardwork in jeans and a T-shirt.


January 14, 2005

The New Media Landscape

Over the last few years I've written several times abut the evolution of the modern media. These observations have come during discussions of media bias. With the advent of the Internet and cable television, the rise in popularity of conservative talk radio, and the easy accessability of alternative media, the main stream media (MSM) has lost traction. Many believe the media has become increasingly polarized. Others claim it is not. Many fingers have been pointed, blaming this and that and the other. They're mostly all wrong. The polarization of journalism is a natural result of market forces and changing technology.

What we think of as a neutral national media is an artifact of the advance of technology. A century and a half ago there was no discussion of media bias. It was simply a fact of life. Radio and television did not exist. ALL media markets were local. Newspapers served their markets and blatantly pandered to the politics of their readers. They were often even named The Democrat or The Republican. If the market was big enough there would be more than one paper so that minority views could also be served (and profited on). Even the rise of the media moguls such as Hearst did not change this--it simply consolidated the independents. National reporting was done by national chains, and by local papers selling each other articles for reprint. Even smaller cities had more than one newspaper.

By the 1970's that still applied only to large cities. When radio came along after WWI, followed by television after WWII, the nature of news reporting changed. Suddenly there was a market for standardized national news that could be profitably served, and the business success of a national media outlet was dependent on attracting the largest audience possible. This meant that news had to become more neutral and impartial, less biased, less slanted to the opinions of local markets. News became homogenized. And so began the journalistic tradition of neutral reporting as a standard, rather than an exception.

What resulted was a market oligopoly of national news. The big broadcast networks and the big newspaper chains ruled. Many local papers remained independent, but still relied on the wire services for their national news. Economics and technology had shaped the market--and the neutrality of journalistic ideology. Business is business, and in a capitalist economy formative forces lead to maximum market-seeking.

But once a market is seized, if there are no alternative sources of supply the oligopolist or monopolist can pretty much do what they want. And political bias began to creep back into the news. Not by leaps and bounds, but slowly, like water through a crack. By the late 1970's the national media establishment was solidly centrist to liberal, and conservatives began to grumble and complain and tune it out.

Time and technology march on. Along comes cable TV, and suddenly the barriers to entry in the national media market are much lower. Ted Turner leaps into the fray, not on ideological motives but pure profit motives, and CNN begins to erode the bottom lines of the Big Three. Rush Limbaugh hits the scene, demonstrating that there is a HUGE untapped market for right-of-center news and views. And along comes the Internet, with almost no barriers to entry at all. In steps Fox. And the Big Three begin to flounder.

The result of this was all predictable, and I've gone on at length about it here and in other places over the last few years. Having lost their oligopoly and under severe market pressures the media, ALL media, have begun to seek market niches to serve profitably. One-size-fits-all is simply not a profitable formula at the moment. The obvious result is that media news outlets have become more ideologically polarized as the news markets fragmented, and the ideal of objective and impartial journalism has taken a big hit.

As I mentioned there is much finger-pointing in the discussion of media bias, disagreement about who is biased how, the origins of bias, even the denial that this outlet or the other has a bias. But the fact is that the media do not shape the markets. The markets shape the media.

This long-winded background review of what I've said for years is leading into something, as you may have guessed. The release of the CBS report has brought the discussion of media bias back into the limelight. But for once, there are signs that some of the media are finally seeing beyond the spitball-throwing of the moment and noticing what has happened, and even figuring out the consequences, and starting to look ahead at what might be.

Some hate it--Howard Fineman, for example. Some like it--Peggy Noonan makes that case. And some, including Noonan and former CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter, see an opportunity for the phoenix to rise from the ashes. A chance for news media to re-assess their market positions and aim for the Big Prize of a stronger, healthier, less partisan reporting ethos that serves more than ideological niches and can capture the big central market through clear, fair, and accurate reporting.

Here's hoping they're right.