Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We have an immediacy problem

  Those of us who walked this planet 45 years ago this week remember exactly what we were doing that day when man first landed on the moon.

   I was in the back seat of the family station wagon in my pin-striped jersey and navy-blue ball cap, headed to an American Legion baseball game.

  I heard the breathless details, "The Eagle has landed," on the car radio. I was in front of the TV later when Neal Armstrong made history's most significant foot print.

   It was 1969. Like rafting through an asteroid belt, we were about to exit America's most tumultuous and tortuous decade. That night, however, the nation's heart beat as one. Was it the last time?

  It's said that television came of age with John Kennedy's assassination. By the time NASA acted out Kennedy's "to the moon" boast, TV had blazed trails of intimacy and immediacy unimaginable six years prior.

  And today -- I think back to the increasing immediacy delivered to our eyes, and wonder at the cost.

  We just passed another anniversary – 20 years since the slow-speed police pursuit of O.J. Simpson down an L.A. freeway.

  Via cable news and network cut-ins, we had arrived at a new and dangerous state of knowing: We knew everything and nothing. Fixated, we knew the instant O.J. dismounted his Bronco. At the same time, we wouldn't know it if a neighbor's house was afire down the block. And we certainly wouldn't know the neighbor.

     Such immediacy was still novel then. Now it is our addiction, our crack cocaine.

     An airliner down in the Indian Ocean without explanation? We must have one. And if we can't have one, we will listen to experts explain that they don't have one, either.

     If CNN's heyday was the immediacy delivered when Syrian scuds fell on Israel during American troops' liberation of Kuwait in 1991, its nonstop speculation about the (still) missing Malaysian Flight 370 last March was emblematic of a junkie who just can't stop.

   Based on the CNN info loop, that jet was the biggest story of the year. Oh, sure; and at the same time the most significant domestic policy shift since Medicare was unfolding: the individual and employer mandates of the Affordable Care Act.

   Immediacy. Immediacy. Now that we have the info-structure in place, there's no place on the globe where a "breaking" story can't distract us.

   And while this addiction is endemic to cable news, understand that local TV news is similarly addled by its devotion to whatever is "breaking" – the hit and run, the shooting, the missing (Caucasian) child, the gripping murder trial.

  It beats having to analyze something, anything, that actually affects our lives – be it education, transportation, the nation's scandalous distribution of wealth – whatever.

    Newspapers do a better job with this, but have their own immediacy addiction, For instance, when it comes to education, too often the consumers of information are scandalously shorted. A 2009 Brookings Institute study of how newspapers covered education found "how little education coverage relates to education itself" -- the focus too often being on "breaking" incidents: a brawl here, a weapon there, a teacher bedding a student. Have you got a mug shot?

    Ah, but the "analysis" burden is met when those state test scores are released. Yes? Actually, that's just another "breaking" moment, and a chance to break out graphs and charts depicting patently false comparisons – "good schools," "bad schools."

   None of this gives us a better understanding of a community quest.

   That moon landing was a community quest we all understood. And for one amazing moment, before immediacy became a national addiction and distraction, we were all on board.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Do-nothing theatrics on immigration

     My son, the skateboarder, has a name for people who dress the part, talk the part, but who don't really do what dedicated skateboarders do. He calls them "posers."

     On immigration, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is a poser. He talks about it – oh, my, yes. But when it comes to doing something about it, he won't. That's because posing plays better for the cameras.

    The other day the Texas Republican commanded the Senate lectern for 18 minutes deriding President Obama's border policies. If anyone actually wanted to know what Cornyn would do differently, well . . .

      Cornyn wanted his CSPAN audience to know that the president was in Texas and didn't plan to go to the border, which meant Obama "either doesn't understand this crisis or he doesn't care."

      Cornyn said the fact that Obama held an immigration summit in Dallas rather than in the Rio Grande Valley was one more indication that the president is "tone-deaf" about border issues, particularly concerning the 52,000 young refugees who have presented themselves on the nation's southern doorstep.

     The senator parroted the Republican line that Obama's policies are to blame for the influx. In fact, it is tied directly to a widely supported law George W. Bush signed in 2008 to deal with human trafficking and children fleeing violence and exploitation in Central America. Cornyn said not a word about that law.

        He did say that the Border Patrol is hurting for resources. Then he made a less-than-glancing reference to the $3.7 billion Obama has requested for deportations with due process, more Border Patrol agents, and more facilities to handle detainees humanely..

         What typical rhetoric: Obama has done nothing to secure the border!

        In fact, this president has deported people at a higher rate than any predecessor, often angering his political supporters.

        However, we know what the president's loudest foes really don't like when it comes to immigration: anything that smacks of compassion and pragmatism regarding good people who've been among us for many years.

         Last year, with the ardent support of the president, the Senate passed a bill that would have nearly doubled the Border Patrol -- while allowing applications for registered provisional immigrant status for otherwise law-abiding individuals who would pay a fine for entering the country illegally.

          The so-called Gang of Eight bill was one of very few shows of bipartisanship on something that mattered. Cornyn ulimatey voted to advance it, but pushed a "trigger" provision certifying a 90 percent secure border. Good luck with that. Sen. John McCain called Cornyn's amendment a "poison pill."

            It was the same kind of impossible-to-deliver guarantee demanded when the Senate bill went to that gallery of trolls, the House, where it died.

            The thing is, it's not just President Obama and Democrats who want a solution that combines enforcement with compassion. A new poll in 26 states commissioned by Partnership for a New American Economy, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers finds stunningly high support for reform along the lines of the Senate-passed bill. In fact, 86 percent of Republicans surveyed supported the Senate bill. That's beyond stunning.

         So, just who has the tone-deafness problem, Sen. Cornyn?

         The situation with the young Central American refugees is a test of our common humanity. These are boat people without boats. Yet, hear Texas Republican Congressman Mike McCaul tell Fox News that, yeah, those little brown-skinned ones are precious, but the teens look "more like a threat." Yeah, Congressman, like a bunch of Trayvon Martins, or Martinezes.

         Hear softies like McCaul and Cornyn talk about the "humanitarian crisis" at the border. Then see them talk their way around realistic, broad-based, humanitarian solutions.

         Let's face it. They're opposed to stuff like that. They're mainly opposed to any real action at all. Now, where is the nearest microphone?

         Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Health-care realities vs. free-market fantasies

  Black helicopter watch can get lonely, even if there's one always just over the horizon.

  Any day now, for instance, President Obama will assemble the death panels of his health-care designs, appointing the extraterrestrials we suspected he would, to a thousand cable-televised told-you-sos.

  So much that was evil, we were told, would dawn with the Affordable Care Act. Most assuredly it wouldn't include 30 million newly insured Americans not even one year on.

  One loses track of all the things by the ACA's most ardent foes assured us would happen. On this occasion, however, it's worth looking at one claim uttered over and over, and which will be uttered over again.

   The claim: that the ACA used Medicare as "its piggybank" – that it took, stole, confiscated, filched, pilfered, over $700 billion from what was set aside to care for your grandparents and mine and to assure the future of the Medicare trust fund.

   That claim not only is fallacious but doubly so. Most of the money in question is calculated savings on hospital reimbursements under Medicare, a crash diet, if you will, regarding overcharges that have been a national scandal. Not only do these savings mean less of an obligation for taxpayers, but as Factcheck.org explains, they significantly "prolong the life of the Medicare trust fund."

   That's a good thing. So is this: With tighter Medicare criteria setting the standard, increasing numbers of hospitals are reining in costs, saving themselves and their patients money in the process.

    Kaiser Health News recently focused a report on hospitals in Utah which had established a data base to track the cost and quality of services to all their patients. So doing, instead of the typical cost run-up, Utah hospitals actually spent less – $2.5 million less – in the last year, without sacrificing quality.

   One big factor in this: constructive pressure from the Medicare system to do things differently.

   Yeah, we know – government ruins everything. Well, when Time magazine's Stephen Brill spent a year studying why hospital bills were so insanely out of proportion, he found a hero and a model for getting us out of this mess: Medicare. Every hospital bill abomination was cast in stark contrast to Medicare's clear-eyed price-setting mechanism.

   Where these comments are headed is this: Some readers don't want to hear it, but the answer to what long has ailed health care is, yes, more government.

   Health care is something the free market cannot do by itself.

   It cannot care for people scraping along in the ranks of the poor and the elderly. It cannot care for people with pre-existing conditions, or those who have no employer-based health coverage and can afford no alternative.

   The free market cannot regulate prices fairly in health care, largely because actual competition is alien to the industry, whether it be making drugs or removing tonsils. The consumer is captive to virtual-to-absolute monopolies.

   And anyway, hospitals are no more private enterprises than is the Pentagon. They are inextricably linked to government and public policy. That is never going to change. So, let's get real and get the most out of what government can do to make health care fairer and more equitable.

   What an odd statement it was when the Supreme Court ruled that a business owner could apply religious tests to what kind of health coverage employees could have. But welcome to the odd coupling of private and public interests inherent in ACA's employer mandate.

  And that says nothing about the role of private insurers who can, and did, drop policy holders on a moment's notice.

   Don't want the government telling employers what they should do? Support a single-payer approach. Get real. To meet the needs of the uninsured and to hold down health-care costs, free-market fantasies don't work. They never have. They never will. 

   Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.