Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lipitor ads and the American way

     This is the way the world works — at least our corner of it.

     In 2006, drug giant Pfizer faced an embarrassing controversy, only not about what it was doing that was truly disgraceful.

     Red faces were in bloom over a series of TV and newspaper ads touting cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor and featuring Robert Jarvik, whom the ads touted as a physician and inventor of the artificial heart. Jarvik, ruggedly outdoorsy, shown in commercials rowing across a lake, told us that Lipitor had lowered his cholesterol.

    Preaching the drug's merits, he said, "You don't have to be a doctor to appreciate that." In that regard he was speaking from expertise, because he wasn't — a doctor, that is.

     And he hadn't invented the artificial heart (though he was involved in the process). And a body double was rowing the boat, not him.

    After a congressional inquiry on their veracity, the ads were pulled, and Pfizer went upon its merry way doing what really should have caused public outrage.

    What was really offensive about the ads was that they cost more than quarter billion dollars.

    How much good that money could have done in our world — schools built, teachers paid, suffering addressed. Instead, it went to merchandizing. Based on the model that most Americans salute, it's all good, because any dollar spent (unless evil government spends it), is a good dollar.

    The price of Lipitor is around $5 a pill. You can get the same pill in Canada for less than $2. That's immaterial, of course. Those extra $3 per pill are all good dollars spent (Pfizer makes $11 billion a year on Lipitor alone). Except, wait: Taxpayers — Medicare (government!) — pay for a lot of those pills.

    So why shouldn't we all be outraged when we see Lipitor commercials all over television today? Well, of course. Drug ads are just about the only thing that keep that vast entertainment wasteland from turning to dust.

     Drug ads are truly an odd species. First, they tell us to ask our doctors about these products, as if our doctors might not have heard of them. And maybe your doctor doesn't watch television, so ask.

     Also, clearly more than half the precious airtime time of these pricey TV spots is spent telling how these drugs can kill you.

     One wonders: Were it not for the horrific potential side effects associated with these drugs, how much of television would have to be thrown overboard? And would we all be healthier as a result?

     Are "Jersey Shore," "Keeping up With the Kardashians" and "Dance Moms" made necessary only because we have so many drug ads with so many warnings to tell, and not enough actual entertainment to satisfy drug industry needs?

    Well, here's some good news to report on this front, maybe.

    Pfizer, and Lipitor, are in a race against time. In November Lipitor's patent expires, along with that for blood-thinner Plavix and five among the world's 20 best-selling drugs. Generic versions then can enter the market and, conceivably, prices can drop.

    Pfizer is seeking Food and Drug Approval for an over-the-counter version of Lipitor. Translation: More drug advertisements, more bad television. Lower prices? Tune in tomorrow.

     Back when the Jarvik matter blew up in Pfizer's face, indignant congressmen called he company on the carpet to explain itself. What a bogus concern.

     Today, the pharmaceutical industry spends $2.5 billion a year on direct advertising to the masses (just about that much in direct marketing to physicians). You don't imagine that affects the price of our medicine, do you?

    But, hey, what do you want? Affordable medications or reality television? You choose.

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



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The mogul behind The Extremes

   Lights, sequins, syncopation. They do put on a performance. Governing? No. But glitter, glam and that good old anti-government sound? Oh, yeah. You can almost hear the Gipper tapping his toe.

   They are the show that's trying to stop the show. They are The Extremes.

   Michele. Rick. Rand. There's Texas right-winger Louie Gohmert on the drums. Ever-extreme Roscoe Barton on the tinny tambourine.

   Singing background, that's Doug Lamborn of Colorado, he who called President Obama a "tar baby." Snap those fingers.

   In a discontented summer, on the Tea Party label, they rose to the top of the charts, refusing to tune down their anti-tax shtick, even in the face of a $14 trillion deficit, even at the risk of shutdown and default by the U.S. government.

   No government? No problem. That would just mean more spotlight for them. These are the one-hit wonders who in an economic lull, took the country by storm, as pop acts tend to do. You do remember the Spice Girls. Maybe.

   Understand: Behind every musical sensation is a sensei, a guru, a promoter, the one with the iron hand. For Diana Ross and The Supremes, it was Berry Gordy, known for his dalliances and controlling quirks. For Michele Bachmann and The Extremes, it is Grover Norquist.

    Did I mention Rick? Yes. Now, Rick Perry has brought his act into the act. And, sorry, Michele, but he looks every bit as good as you in satin and feathers. And he's Grover's squeeze, too.

    You might wonder how Norquist rose in the industry. That's pretty simple. Industry — corporations, more particularly — and right-wing industrialists, pumped millions of dollars into his interest group Americans for Tax Reform. With all that money and behind-the-scenes support, Norquist has attained a position held by few outside of government: a combination hit maker and hit man. 

     To get his blessing you have to do two things: (1) Get elected. (2) Sign his pledge never to support new taxes, though the national debt soars, though troops are committed around the globe at the cost of half a billion dollars every day — $700 million a day at the height of involvement in Iraq. No matter. To put it in the vernacular of the heartland: We don't need no stinkin' revenue.

     Norquist is the the demagogue's demagogue. But for people who care only about their own needs, he is the star maker's star maker. He's famous for quipping: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Put that to music.      

     Here's the amazing thing. Whereas once members of the House and Senate pledged allegiance to the United States and its needs, all but 17 Republicans holding seats in the two houses are committed to something else entirely. They are beholden to that pledge to Grover Norquist.

     Lest we think this makes Texas Gov. Perry an outsider — pure, fresh air amid this circular current — he has signed the same pledge and has been one of Norquist's favorite anti-tax mannequins for some time.

     As a result of Perry's leadership, though Texas must balance its budget by law, it has a structural deficit that causes it to continually carve at what a state must do, like educate its children, pave its roads or protect its natural resources.

     It's been clear, whether the needs are those children, or the elderly, or the disabled, or all those troops who shed blood for us, what The Extremes are about is pleasing two constituencies: Those who can afford the best seats at the base of their stage, and of course the mogul who helped make them what they are.

    Once upon a time, Thomas Jefferson wrote that this is a nation in which power was derived from the consent of the governed. He did not consider a government in which any thing it might need to do would have to be run past the desk of a man named Grover.

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The epiphany Arne Duncan didn't have

    It doesn't come often in the average person's life — maybe never: the transformative thought. The light bulb of invention and inspiration. It came often to Einstein, Edison, Tesla. For us? Not so much.

   For the sake of America's children, let's hope the one Arne Duncan just announced isn't it — that epiphany America's secretary of education thought he had.

   Not that his idea doesn't have merits, which we'll discuss. But saying that his department is prepared to grant broad waivers on No Child Left Behind's most outrageous requirement is nothing transformative. Mainly, it is more of the same.

   Before discussing Duncan's decision, I'm going to give him a second shot — a mulligan, a do-over on the fairway of inspiration. I'm going to place this link on a tee before him, and you.  http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html  

     Sir Ken Robinson, internationally acclaimed expert on creativity in learning, says on Ted.com that education is supposed to take us to a "future we can't grasp." It seems we hear versions of this all the time, except the only future we can grasp is how it fits into a capitalist's world view or possibly the views of Chinese capitalists. Neither of these matter to Robinson. Creativity is what matters. He is right.

   "All kids have tremendous talents," he says, "and we squander them pretty ruthlessly."

    Hear Robinson and know his barb is not aimed at teachers in general, or necessarily at schools as institutions. His critique is of what society and policymakers insist: regimentation, homogenization and standardization. In the "age of accountably," these traits are saluted like the flag, as they beset America's classrooms like a black dust storm.

       In the face of inaction by Congress to address the impossible-to-achieve NCLB requirement of "100 percent proficient" on core requirements by 2014, Duncan's offer of waivers has good sense on its side, much like the sense it takes to shut off the water when a broken pipe is about to flood the gymnasium. It does nothing, however, about the fate and function of the school.

       Instead, the waivers Duncan offers are based on criteria that further pump up the pressure relative to test scores (using them to evaluate teachers for tenure, for instance, as Colorado had mandated), and homogenization (obeisance to the Common Core principles touted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

      The organization Parents Across America calls Duncan's initiative encouraging in concept, but in execution "likely to expand the destructive agenda of over-testing, school closings, and privatization."

      As self-evident as it is that schools cannot reach "100 percent" of anything under threat of federal guillotine, granting a stay of execution is only that — a stay.

      Duncan, and his boss in the Oval Office, need to hear Ken Robinson. They need to agree that such words reflect what each parent wants. But when so much hinges on passing and administering tests, we expel from school the creativity, the excitement, the passion each of us needs to advance humanity, and ourselves.

      What policymakers including Duncan call education under criteron-based test-heavy "accountability" is more like training, conveyor-belt work, awaiting the stamp of some industrialist's approval.

    "Creativity," says Ken Robinson, "is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."

     Take this second opportunity at your epiphany, Secretary Duncan. Listen to Robinson. Then run through the streets. Make it your angel-on-the-snowy- bridge moment. Be Jimmy Stewart. Tell the nation you're a changed bureaucrat. Tell the nation you've been wrong. Go ahead, use "we" — we've been wrong — because it's a collective abomination we've committed under "accountability."

     Become evangelical, Mr. Secretary, about what real education is and how top-down, corporate-style edicts prevent schools from providing it. This can be the game-changer you went to Washington to deliver.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Profound hypocrisy behind ‘pro-life’ label

    The convention center was a multicolored whirl of abstinence education — in every room — from teen girls learning about the exploitation that can come with a grown-up suitor, to adolescents making a reach into a purple velvet "grab bag" only to find a deathly dilemma in hand, like AIDS or syphilis.

    Every effort, every word, was about healthy decisions and the realities of growing up.

   And outside the convention center? "Pro-life" protesters screamed, waived placards, and condemned the gathering for promoting sex and abortion.

   An annual summer event in Waco, Texas, the event I observed was Planned Parenthood's Nobody's Fool, an amazing thing that involves an array of community organizations interested in making a positive difference (225 kids attending this year), and always a gaggle of protesters outside wanting to make noise. Both entities succeed, I might add.

    Noise, of course, is easy. Observe how effortlessly it comes from geese or farm fowl. Actually doing something about life's travails, like unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and more is never easy.

    Now, observe how noisy segments of society conspire to make the matter even more difficult.

    In St. Lucie County, Fla., an innovative Planned Parenthood after-school program called Teen Time is making a difference. Far more than sex and abstinence education, it is about life skills for students in need. Over nine years it has helped many teens wrap their minds around college, with 90 students making that daunting leap.

    Next month, funding for Teen Time and two other Planned Parenthood programs — one that helps parents become better role models, one specifically geared to the Latino community — will come up for renewal from the area Children's Services Council. Protesters whose harassment resulted in the defunding of similar activities in neighboring Martin County hope to do the same in St. Lucie County.

     Yes, this is a program with a track record of success and public support. But the involvement of Planned Parenthood, say opponents, makes it illegitimate and, yes, evil.

     And why? We know why. Abortion. The fact that Planned Parenthood provides it at scattered locations nationwide (though not in Martin or St. Lucie counties), is used as a political cudgel against it, as if the agency were engaging in organized crime.

     Americans who support constitutionally protected reproductive rights should support the availability of abortion services loudly. These clinics' deeds are heroic. A right is a right.

     More pertinently, however, most of what Planned Parenthood does is prevent unintended pregnancies and, hence, reduce the possibility that women face the abortion dilemma.

     The political offensive being launched against Planned Parenthood at any number of assault points from local, to state, to federal, should infuriate most Americans and should cause centrist politicians to develop some spine against it.

      Unbelievably, one of the most clear-eyed expressions of common sense came recently from one of the least likely sources, religious-right giant Focus on the Family. Jim Daley, president of the Colorado-based organization, said that he wanted to engage, and possibly support, organizations like Planned Parenthood in ways that reduce unplanned pregnancies and therefore abortions. Since most of Focus on the Family's ideological kin find any such notion repugnant, hopes cannot be set too high.

     For decades I have written supporting reproductive rights and a holistic approach to curbing unplanned pregnancies — and abortion. I've never heard from a single "pro-life" individual who thinks similarly. The movement cannot look at birth control as part of the solution. The movement cannot look at comprehensive sex education as part of the solution.

   The same applies to today's Republican Party. It once had a place for centrists who agreed with then Congressman George H.W. Bush in 1969 when he said, "If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.

"No more. Right, GOP?"

   In its zealotry and intransigence, conditions which now possess Bush's party, the "pro-life" movement is so far from the real-world solutions that can actually make a difference, it is the problem.

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The man from Texas steps 'forward'

   Rick Perry was in Aspen last week long enough to disappoint a packed room of western conservatives.

   The Texas governor, you might have heard, is primping for the presidency. And let's admit: He's the kind of candidate to get tea party hearts arrhythmic. It's not just the hair. It's not just the square jaw. It's that —well, he's everything an anti-tax, anti-gummint', anti-everythin' voter would want.

   Perry spoke in Colorado at a fundraiser where his 10-minute spiel was mostly generalities — nothing about running for president, no clothier advice, no hairstyling tips. Then, he jetted off without taking questions. Media reports were almost sorry to disappoint.

   That's OK, because I have his announcement speech for president right here.

   And let me tell you, if it isn't inspiring to those who want this nation to step back into another political epoch — say, back to the time pelts first were used for clothing — then nothing will inspire.

    That Perry has made "forward" the text-message byword of his thus far non-candidacy is but a quibble. To dwell on such a contradiction is just pointy-headed semantics, because, well, just listen:

   "My fellow Americans, the time has come for new leadership, a new vision, the Texas vision. For too long — ever since the bitter January of 2008, the nation has thirsted — thirsted for a divinely led Texan to return America to greatness. There can be no doubt that I am that man. 

    "As with the man who preceded me in the Texas governor's mansion, I make all my decisions with God's counsel, and I have heard the call. The message came to me this winter when I encountered a coyote on my gubernatorial jog. I trained my .380 Luger and beseeched the Almighty to guide my hollow-point. The message I heard was: Train your pistol on Washington's big-spending ways.

       "Pursuant, I am running for president. And when elected, I will cut taxes early and often. If anything is apparent from recent debt deliberations, it is that Washington has too much money. I will fix that.

    "The big spenders are pointing out that state and federal taxes as a percent of GDP are at their lowest point since Truman was president and a loaf of bread cost 14 cents. Well, that's too much for me. I will bring that slice of GDP down to levels seen when bread was still a futuristic notion.

      "My tax-cut policies, modeled in Texas, will turn the nation's economy around. Look at what my state just did. We just told Texas schools that they could get by on $4 billion less than state law was saying we ought spend. We let go of thousands of teachers — a point of pride in our state, as gradeschools and gradeschoolers should be leaner and meaner.

     "Critics say Texas has allowed its transportation infrastructure to fall hopelessly behind under my stewardship. But we approach these matters the free-market way. When a road decays, the free-market dictates that if you can buy an SUV or truck with 18-inch clearance, you need no pavement. That's how we in Texas get on down the road.

      "With me as president, Washington no longer will tell states what to do. In Texas, we believe that what our polluters put in the air is their business and nobody else's. People who breathe? Unless they're lobbyists or contributors, I don't see them on my appointments list.

     "Foreign policy? Well I've taken many a yacht to far-off places courtesy of contributors who believe in good government. And here's the thing: Like my predecessor as governor, I have a leather flight jacket, and I'm not afraid to use it.

    "I believe strongly in the divinely inspired 'onward march of freedom' led by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And so it will resume with me as your president, as soon as we can find on oil-rich nation to march against.

      "I look 'forward' to serving as your president, and I know you look 'forward' to it as well. God help the United States of America."

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