Hollywood’s Last Great Villain

It’s the businessman. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

Everybody knows that television plays a powerful role in shaping social attitudes. So it’s no surprise when groups of people who sense that they are being harmfully stereotyped in the medium lodge complaints. The “Frito bandito” is long gone as a result, and a show like “Amos ‘n’ Andy” would be unthinkable now. Even religion can get some respect if the yelps of outrage are loud enough: NBC’s “The Book of Daniel,” about a drug-addicted Episcopal minister with a pipeline to a hipster Jesus, was quickly canceled this year after protests that it was offensive to people of faith.

But there’s one group we never hear a peep from, even though its members may be the most routinely maligned of all. According to a study published last month by the Business & Media Institute, in the world of TV entertainment, “businessmen [are] a greater threat to society than terrorists, gangs or the mob.”

The study, titled “Bad Company,” looked at the top 12 TV dramas during May and November in 2005, ranging from crime shows like “CSI” to the goofy “Desperate Housewives.” Out of 39 episodes that featured business-related plots, the study found, 77% advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.

Emily Chamlee-Wright and the late Don Lavoie covered similar ground in chapter five of their terrific book Culture and Enterprise.

On a related note, Deirdre McCloskey defended the virtues [pdf] of the bourgeois in a recent issue of Cato Policy Report.

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Shameless

From the July 13 issue of The Hill

The U.S. Capitol Historical Society will hold a reception next week to honor a select group of lawmakers “for their hard work, service, time and the sacrifices made in upholding the office with which they were entrusted.”

One of the people slated to receive such accolades is former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.).

The disgraced ex-legislator, of course, can’t make the July 19 event or any other social gathering in the near future because he’s serving a prison term of eight-plus years for a bribery scandal you may have heard about….

Another honoree is former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas)….

The co-hosts of the event will include members of leadership, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

(Cross-posted from my one-line blog “To Be Governed … “)

Meanwhile…

Trade junkies will have already read countless articles about the all-but-certain failure of the Doha round of trade talks, so I won’t add to the pile. Nor will I spoil the fun of reading my op-ed in today’s Washington Times (note to the observant: the lede grew stale while the piece awaited publication) on the myriad reasons why failure is such a shame.

But there is more going on in trade circles than the Doha round. Here’s a digest of other developments, some good and some not so good:

  • Firstly, the United States is hoping to conclude a bilateral agreement with Russia on its entry into the WTO, hopefully in time for a great photo opportunity on the margins of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg this weekend. (My colleague Ian Vazquez argues that the summit could in fact yield little else of value.) Of all the countries awaiting WTO accession, Russia is by far the largest and its inclusion would bring 99% of world trade under the WTO’s auspices. Several U.S. business groups have publicly objected to, among other things, Russia’s treatment of intellectual property rights. But surely bringing Russia into the fold, and under the rules, of the WTO would improve the ability of members to ensure Russia’s trade policies are up to scratch.
  • This week in Seoul, the United States and South Korea held the second round of negotiations on a possible free trade agreement (and I use that term very cautiously). Unfortunately, the talks ended early after a dust-up over pharmaceuticals. Before then, the usual South Korean rent-a-crowd of protesters had come out in force against any agreement. One of the main sticking points is agricultural trade, particularly rice, which is highly protected in South Korea.
  • In what may be just a tactical move to scare other WTO negotiators, the EU this week raised the possibility of more preferential trade deals (link requires subscription), with or without a successful conclusion to the Doha round. That is worrisome news. The bigger the players that make these agreements, the larger the damage to the global trading system. Partly in reference to the difficulty of a deal with the United States, a Korean research center has suggested that it would be easier to make a bilateral deal with the EU than with the United States, presumably because such a deal would exclude a large number of agricultural products from liberalization. South Korea and the EU will find a lot of common ground when it comes to protecting agriculture, but an easy agreement does not necessarily a good agreement make.
  • And, on a related and somewhat cheerier note, the WTO members did manage to reach one deal this week as part of the Doha talks: they agreed on disciplines (mainly relating to transparency and early reporting) on preferential deals. Almost all WTO members are parties to one or more preferential deals, but the previous process of approving them has been so jammed that only one of those deals (out of almost 200) has been approved by the WTO. A bit of transparency in this area can only be a good thing, and should limit the damage that low quality, trade distorting preferential agreements can do. Of course, the approval of the new ‘transparency mechanism’ is only provisional and could all come unstuck should the final death knells ring for Doha. Plus ça change

Medicare Reform: Just Give Seniors the Cash

Matthew Holt at TheHealthCareBlog.com raises a good question about Medicare’s renewed effort to offer medical savings accounts to beneficiaries:

Those taxpayers who can do basic math might wonder why you’d want to to give healthy Medicare beneficiaries cash for health services that they’re not going to use, while taking that cash away from the pot that pays for the sick beneficiaries that do use said services. But we’ve asked that question so many times before and no one on the free market side dare answer it. And I guess you might say, why not give the taxpayers money straight to the “healthys” instead of laundering it through Medicare Advantage plans as we’re doing it now so that they can hand out free gym memberships to seniors and boost their executives’ stock holdings.

But given that risk adjustment is coming to Medicare Advantage, it may be that that gravy train is ending.

The Medicare MSA concept raises some interesting problems. Fortunately, Holt solves them — though I’m not sure he knows it.

A bit of background: The Medicare Advantage program currently pays private health insurers a flat amount for each senior those plans cover. As Holt notes, that encourages the plans to seek out the seniors whose medical bills will be less than that flat amount. Thus some plans “hand out free gym memberships to seniors” as a way to attract the healthy, profitable ones and avoid the unprofitable sick ones. That can end up costing taxpayers more than if those healthy seniors just stayed in traditional Medicare. 

But as Holt says, Medicare is working on adjusting those payments according to each beneficiary’s health risk. Instead of some flat amount per beneficiary, insurers would receive a payment from Medicare that better reflects each individual enrollee’s expected medical expenses. That way, health plans would have less reason to cater to the healthy or to avoid the sick. 

But once Medicare risk-adjusts those payments, why should the insurance companies get that money? As Holt postulates and Mike Tanner and I discuss in Healthy Competition, why not give it to the beneficiary? Confine it to health care uses, if you like. Healthy people would get smaller payments; sicker seniors would get larger ones. That would enable each to purchase health coverage (high-deductible or whatever) and still have some money left over for their out-of-pocket expenses. Seniors would get more control over their health care and coverage; they would make much smarter cost-benefit decisions than they do now; and Congress could limit the burden that Medicare imposes on taxpayers.

Is the point of the program to help insurers? Or providers? Or seniors? To whom do we want insurers and providers to be responsive?

Have We Learned Nothing from “SchoolHouse Rock”?

“I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sittin’ here on Capitol Hill…”

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and cartoons were confined to Saturday morning broadcast programming, kids learned about the separation of powers (among other things) from the ”SchoolHouse Rock” toons.

Apparently some future New Jersey lawyers weren’t tuned in.

The recent lawsuit about which Cato’s Neal McCluskey has been writing asks the court to create a school voucher program in New Jersey as a remedy to the state’s deficient public school system. Right ends, wrong means. Courts are for legal interpretation; legislation is for legislatures.

There’s little doubt that New Jersey is failing to live up to its constitutional promise to provide a “thorough and efficient” education. Should the court so rule, it will be up to the legislature to fix the problem, and introducing a universally accessible free education marketplace is certainly the best solution they could implement.

But it’s their job to implement it, not the court’s.

The Answer Is: “Public School Establishment”

Yesterday, I wrote about a New Jersey lawsuit aimed at letting parents with children in failing public schools take their children, and their share of public education funding, and send them to any institution they want, public or private. It’s a new twist on educational equity suits all over the country that have produced a ton of new funding for supposedly poor districts, but little by way of academic success.

At the end of yesterday’s post, I wondered aloud whether long-time supporters of old-style equity remedies would get behind litigation intended to empower parents, or if they would only support suits that would shower more money on “the public school establishment.” I mentioned specifically the Education Law Center, which has been the driving force behind old-school equity cases in New Jersey for decades.

This morning, in a story about the disastrous Camden, NJ, public schools, I’m afraid I got my answer:

Camden schools – despite their ongoing problems – have taken positive steps by offering preschool programs, reducing class size and other efforts, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

“It’s easy to criticize and have some silver-bullet solution that’s untested and unproven,” Sciarra said. “There’s a positive agenda that we need everyone, including the school-choice activists, to get behind.”

I suppose I could hope that when Sciarra attacked a “silver-bullet solution that’s untested and unproven” he was referring to pouring more and more money into improvement-invulnerable public schools, but that’s been tested repeatedly…and constantly found to be a failure. Unfortunately, I guess that means I have my answer.