Prager Myths

Dennis Prager comes out with several myths about the U.S. health care system (oh sorry, Dennis, the health insurance system) to try to prove that there is nothing that needs to be reformed. Everything is perfect. Those of us with insurance are happy campers and delighted with the service we get, and those of us without can always get care even if we don’t have insurance. What planet is this man living on? Who pays his speaking fees? A teenager spending a few minutes on the Internet could dispel most of Prager’s myths.

He argues, for example, that it is totally untrue that the U.S. spends more on health care (oops, insurance) than other countries. All he needs to do – and what an enterprising youngster would do to get the facts – is to go here to the OECD analysis which is updated annually to see that indeed the U.S. as a percentage of GDP spends enormously more than other OECD nations and not by slim margins. The U.S. spends a staggering 16 percent of GDP on health – most of the OECD countries spend less than 10 percent of GDP.

According to Dennis, life expectancy is better in the U.S. Wrong again. At the age of 65, for instance, most people – males and females – in EU countries have longer life expectancies than their counterparts in the States.

A bemused Dennis also can’t understand how on earth you can mix public and private options. He asks: “Do you really believe that private insurance could survive a ‘public option’? Or is this really a cover for the ideal of single-payer medical care? How could a private insurance company survive a ‘public option’ given that private companies have to show a profit and government agencies do not have to – and given that a private enterprise must raise its own money to be solvent and a government option has access to others’ 
money — i.e., taxes?”

Oh dear, Dennis, you need to get a passport and travel a bit, old boy. PPP and BUPA have survived fine in the UK running alongside Britain’s National Health Service. Several other European countries have thriving private health insurance companies that work with or compete with the public systems, e.g. in Belgium, France and Italy. Oh, and by the way, most educated and travelled people, and a lot of health experts, would argue that the best health system in the OECD countries is in Belgium with high quality and prompt service. Germany comes next. After experiences in hospitals in several OECD countries, including the U.S., put me in a Belgian or German hospital before sending me to a U.S. one.

Not content with coming out with nonsense when it comes to statistics, Dennis than comes up with an absurd objection to President Obama’s goal of stopping health insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. “If any individual can buy health insurance at any time, why would anyone buy health insurance while healthy? Why would I not simply wait until I got sick or injured to buy the insurance?”

That is easily navigated. Make it compulsory for everyone to have health insurance but make sure there are affordable cost options and premiums. Let’s do a quick comparison. I have an individual health insurance policy in the U.S. — it costs me more than $450 a month. I have also private medical insurance from a UK company that covers me anywhere in Europe: it costs me about $140 a month and it is far more extensive than the U.S. one.

Separately from Prager, Clive Crook has an excellent piece in today’s Financial Times, making the point that the President is making a hash of reform and is starting to back-track. He needs to argue specifics, Crook says, and he is right. Trust the congressional Democrats to make a mess of things even when they have big majorities.

Home for the Holidays

The UK Telegraph reports that record numbers of Britons are staying in the UK for their summer vacations. Debenhams are sending urgent supplies of flip-flops to seaside towns that were deserted in past years.

It isn’t only Britons who are staying close to home for the summer. The north-east coastal towns of Italy have seen a fall-off of the tourist trade with more than 30 percent declines from the numbers of last summer. And last year was no fun for the hotels of Rimini and other northern seaside towns with 20 percent or more declines then.

Where I am working from currently in Lazio, the numbers are clearly down as well. Largo di Bolsena is without the Dutch and Swedes this year, with just a few around and those normally are the ones who own property in the area. And this weekend the lake was crowded with local families who can’t afford to travel south or visit overseas. The Tuscan beaches are virtually empty on weekdays.

Horse Race Coverage of Health Care Reform

Politico’s coverage today of the health care debate is typical of the nature and poor quality of what is being offered by the US media — traditional press and online — when it comes to reporting on what is likely to be the biggest reform of Obama’s first term. You could read the whole piece and have no idea of what is being proposed and counter-proposed, of how ordinary Americans will be impacted. There are seldom any details in the reports coming from the press and this is where online could do much better — everything is always about who has what votes, what the legislative process is and what the obstacles are and who may have to pay more tax. Details of proposals and how they might play out in the real world would be useful. But then the horse race has always taken first place for journalists who forget who their audience is — and that is, of course, why the audience is deserting them.

FT Editor Predicts Pay Walls Around News

Lionel Barber, the FT editor is a thoughtful man and has certainly had success with building a partial pay wall around FT online content — you pay if you want to access more than a handful of articles a month. The FT has 110,000 subscribers and over a million who make do with a few reads every month. But he may be a tad over-optimistic when he forecasts that within a year most authoritative news will be protected by pay walls.

As is clear now, the current business model for news organizations in the online age doesn’t work. Free access and advertising is not paying the bills. But throwing up pay walls will reduce the number of readers and turn off advertisers. Will subscriptions make up the difference and provide the income for expensive news-gathering operations? Well it didn’t when newspapers really were newspapers. Back in the old days most top newspapers made only a fraction of their income from news-stand sales and deliveries. The big bucks came from advertising. Why should it be any different online?

Another point worth making. Pay walls may undermine news aggregators but the middle ranking newspapers — and further down the line, the bottom feeders — may well be prepared to pay the price of subscriptions in order to re-write the material. This is what newspapers have been doing for years with AP, Reuters, AFP and PA and slapping a false by-line on the results.

Barber and the pay-wallers will have to take into account the news organizations that don’t have pressing need for advertising and subscriber revenue — namely, public broadcasters like the BBC and NPR.

A sour point. Barber should stop being snooty about bloggers: some are former journalists, others are developing their craft and evolving much as Grub Street did in the 18th century.

Is Sir David Running Out of Steam?

They say that old jokes are the best. But not if you hear them three times in the space of a fortnight. Sir David Frost has been in Washington DC for a couple of weeks now and been the guest speaker for a number of events, including an A-list gala dinner to celebrate  London’s Benjamin Franklin House and a bash at the Newseum for the launch of Al Jazeera English in the U.S. capital. On each occasion he starts off by saying that he was at a recent dinner where a toast-master got confused and instead of announcing, “Pray Silence for Sir David Frost”, he called the diner’s chatter to a halt by declaring, “Pray for silence from Sir David Frost.”

Another joke Frostie deploys is the one about the Thatchers and Reagans at a dinner event in the States where Ronnie spoke and introduced the Iron Lady and on the conclusion of her speech Barbara Bush got up and introduced Denis Thatcher. British press hacks present were aghast, knowing that Denis Thatcher was the publicly silent spouse who avoided speechifying at all costs. But Denis rose, buttoned up his jacket and announced: “As Julius Ceasar said on entering Cleopatra’s tent, ‘I have not come here to talk.'”

Not bad jokes but if you are being paid huge sums to give a speech, best to make some changes every now and again — especially when you are talking to the same A-listers in the same town.

Did the Election Reflect Iranian Opinion?

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was probably being accurate when he said on State television on Tuesday night that voters, regardless of who they voted for, support the Islamic Republic. U.S. and European reporters and commentators who have little first-hand knowledge of the country have a terrible tendency to interpret events there in very Western ways.  

Polling data pulled together by Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty ahead of the elections did not pick up an impending revolution and the pollsters argued in a thoughtful article in the Washington Post on Monday that the “election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people.”  The poll they conducted by phone between May 11 and May 20 had Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoying a huge lead over challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi –even among Azeris. Iran, of course, is not just Tehran and too many U.S. commentators seem not to appreciate that the middle-class in Tehran don’t necessarily reflect the majority view. 

But how the regime deals with the protests aginst the results is going to be a crucial determining factor in how the Islamic Republic will be viewed in the future by Iranians. In the Ballen/Doherty poll even supporters of Ahmadinejad indicated their hope for change — more democracy, the right to vote for the Supreme Leader, and free and fair elections and a free press were seen as priorities and not just for Mousavi supporters but by those planning to vote for the incumbent president. If those hopes are crushed, even many Ahmadinejad supporters could become disaffected. The authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place: maintain a hardline position and risk widespread disaffection, back down and encourage the opposition to demand more reform.

President Obama has come in for criticism from Republicans for not being out front enough but his approach reflects real maturity and sophistication. If Washington DC starts blasting away with all rhetorical guns blazing more than likely that will help the hardliners by allowing Ahmadinejad to rally patriotic Iranians. After all surely the point is that the protests don’t mark a rejection of the Islamic Republic but a determination by some to purify and modernise it.

The Real Revolution

The struggle in Iran to ensure all votes are counted just once each is surely put into perspective by the great revolution that is being unleashed on the leafy streets of ancient country towns in England. They are marching against plastic trash bins even in Henley-upon-Thames.  The governments quakes. Hardly surprisingly, the great bin revolution as covered by the UK Daily Mail prompted 241 comments from readers. The Iran report received 13 comments.

No Wonder the Newspaper Industry is in Dire Straits

Maybe it will seem unsympathetic to some if I question why anyone should be guaranteed a job for life. I admit I am sitting on the terrace of my small house in Italy enjoying a vacation. But I worked damn hard for this house and never had a job guaranteed when I was a newspaperman. As some of you will be aware, the Boston Globe’s Newspaper Guild looks like it will agree to a demand made by the paper’s owner for the end of lifetime job guarantees. Apparently, 190 members enjoyed that privilege. The bigger question — not one being asked by US newspapers as far as I can see —  is why they had those guarantees in the first place. It reminds me of the nonsense in the UK during the 1980s and earlier when the print unions and the National Union of Journalists controlled the British newspaper industry — to the detriment of the economic health of newspapers. 

Poor old newspapers – challenged by the Internet and let down by managements and unions.

Who Survives?

An interesting take on who might survive through the economic crisis and beyond among the online news and commentary sites from Matt Pressman at Vanity Fair . His points are fair and his comments about news aggregators such as Drudge and Google News are spot on: what happens to them when content is not free and content providers hide behind a pay-barrier? 

But he could have been more cutting about some of the news sites owned by newspapers. As my friend Jay Byrne, president of v-Influence Interactive, pointed out in a blog a few weeks ago, the newspaper industry has been lacking in practical development sense. I quote him: “What many newspapers don’t realize is that they have yet to perfect the basic mission of successful Web publishing: Link relevant content with relevant audiences for increased ROI opportunities for relevant advertisers. When they do, they may staunch their current hemorrhage and – gasp – perhaps make money online.” 

I think Jay in the blog could have added that newspaper sites are not good at bringing together, too, videos, blogs and Podcasts with text. And many newspapers are employing young hacks who just don’t write well.

 What is missing from Pessman’s piece is a wider viewpoint of producers and how knowledge-based organizations such as universities, NGOs, think tanks and charities, are beginning to be news and commentary platforms in themselves and are thriving in the world of RSS feeds. Of course, they don’t have the same kind of commercial constraints that for-profit news-sites and agrregators face.