This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Thinking Outside the Box on Medicare

            My friend John and I got together for coffee recently and figured out how to Save Medicare. Everybody exhale.
            Unlike Congressman Paul Ryan, we began with the premise that the promise of Medicare (it will take care of you from 65 to the grave) needs to be kept. The question, then, is how to do that in a sustainable, cost-effective way. We (oh, all right, John, it was your idea) decided to approach that by consolidating government services and greatly reducing the profit motive. By now you’ve probably figured we’re not Republicans.
            Still, it’s hard to argue with the notion that private enterprise run riot bears a fair portion of the blame for the high cost of health care. The Medicare prescription-drug law passed a few years ago, for instance, forbids the federal government to use its buying power to bargain with drug companies for lower prices. A lot of people think government is inefficient, but mandating inefficiency and higher costs to the taxpayer is something that makes no sense unless you look at the federal government as a welfare provider to large corporations.
            By contrast the Veterans Administration hospital system requires the government to use its bargaining power with drug companies and results in significantly lower prices. Which raises the logical question as to why Medicare doesn’t follow the VA model of having government provide the services directly, rather than reimbursing a huge number of privately owned hospitals, clinics and medical practices with a wide range of treatment policies and billing practices.
            Suppose for a moment that Medicare were run like the VA, with regional hospitals and clinics focusing on its target patient population. Some provision could be made for contracting out services in sparsely populated areas, but that shouldn’t be too hard to work out.
            The advantages, in concept, would be considerable. The facilities could be run by a core of experienced doctors, with interns and younger residents doing much of the work, perhaps in exchange for a break on the cost of their medical education. With one billing system, one patient-records system, and one proscribed-treatment system (subject to physician review), the savings should be significant. The quality of medical care, owing to a focus of concentration, should be pretty good. In the event it turned out not to be, people could complain to their Congress member and have more hope of relief than they would if they complained to an HMO.
            If we acknowledge that the rising cost of health care has to be dealt with by making substantive changes, why not this one? Like the other ideas, it wouldn’t be perfect, but it incorporates the advantages mentioned above along with transparency. With one system dealing with health care for the elderly, we could get a pretty good handle on what it really costs. From what I’ve been able to understand about the Ryan proposal, one of its glaring weaknesses is that it doesn’t account for the cost of treating people whose primary coverage has run out.
            In the current political climate, suggesting a greater role for government is a tough sell. It shouldn’t automatically be so. Having a single layer of administration and accountability is common-sense management, and there’s no way to get that degree of  simplicity through the multitude of private services out there.
            The original sin of Medicare was keeping treatment in the hands of the private sector. That allowed people to keep the doctor they had, but at considerable and increasingly unaffordable cost. I like my doctor a lot, but between keeping him and keeping Medicare, I know which way I’d go.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Amateur Hour in Your Home Town

                  Once upon a time there was a show on radio (and briefly on TV) called Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. It was the American Idol of its time, only with less hype and a smaller payout. For years it provided a brief moment of fame to assorted singers, dancers, and musicians of the type who played melodies on whisky bottles. A small handful of performers went on to amount to something in the entertainment world, but most were Three Day Wonders.
                  If you live anywhere outside the top dozen media markets in the United States, chances are you’re being regularly exposed these days to the hometown version of the Amateur Hour. It takes the form of the local newspaper. Battered, bruised and deprived of the business model that served them for 150 years, local papers have increasingly taken to using cheap local talent to fill their news and opinion pages on a freelance basis.
                  Before moving on with that idea, let it be said that 20, 30, 40 years ago, when local papers were thriving monopolies, most of them weren’t that great. And in many cases, family-owned papers were among the worst for the simple reason that it had been several generations since anybody in charge knew what they were doing.
                  Whatever their quality issues, most of those papers at least tried to cover the public’s business professionally. They sent reporters to water boards, zoning boards and city council meetings. Occasionally those reporters would see something that didn’t make sense, ask some questions, write a story, and generate a public response. Even when that happened rarely, it could make at least some public officials behave a bit better than they otherwise might have.
                  About 25 years ago, in response to a slow decline in circulation numbers, newspaper consultants began to advise their clients that they needed to reconnect with the communities in which they published. Part of the strategy was to open up the opinion pages to more local commentary by members of the community.
                  How could anybody argue with that? In theory you can’t — at least if you profess to believe in democratic principles. The problem, as with Marxism, is making an idea that sounds lovely actually work in the real world. What happened all too often was that people whose letters to the editor used to get cut in half ended up with their own columns. Much of the remaining space was taken up by self-serving and not terribly interesting pleadings by local organizations. Editors, at least the more perceptive of them, learned the hard way that the talent reservoir in even an affluent and educated community is not very deep.
                  About 10 years ago, as the Internet steamroller began to flatten local papers, many tried to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue by cutting back on staff reporters and using more freelance stories. (One paper in Southern California went so far as to outsource its reporting to India, having writers in that country cover a City Council meeting by picking up the community television’s internet feed.)
                  There is only one thing to be said for this approach: It fills a lot of space on a low budget. There’s plenty to be said against it. Regrettably often, freelancers don’t have the training to ask the right questions; they aren’t able to stick with an area of coverage long enough to really understand it; they’re not in constant contact with more experienced editors from whom they could absorb some knowledge (assuming any such editors are left at the local paper); and since they’re being paid next to nothing, they are apt to cover the stories they want to cover, rather than what the community needs covered. It’s a system geared not toward providing journalism, but toward creating the illusion of journalism.

Friday, September 23, 2011

All the News That's Unfit to Print

            This just in from rural America: It’s a scary place, and your character can randomly be assassinated by anyone on the internet. The Times reported this week that the sort of gossip that used to be transmitted over a cup of coffee or a back fence is now going online, and if you’re a victim of it, there’s not much you can do.
            Take the case of Jennifer in Missouri. According to the Times story, she was named in an anonymous post on a social website called Topix as “a methed-out, doped-out whore with AIDS.” Her husband said that wasn’t true, but the posting caused her to be ostracized in her small town. She and her husband are planning to move.
            Topix, run from Palo Alto, is the new big thing in small-town America, and one of the things it’s proving is that those towns ain’t Mayberry. There are a certain number of news-related posts, but much of the content consists of anonymous gossip posts. Under federal law, Topix is not liable for those posts, damaging as they are, and trying to get at the source can be a long and costly process.
            Back in the day that type of over-the-fence gossip could often be traced back to the source and the source considered. The anonymity of the internet makes even that small degree of accountability all but impossible. Evaluating the validity of an anonymous post has become one of the toughest issues in the online world.
            The first time I looked at Yelp, all I could think of was that I was glad I don’t own a restaurant. It’s bad enough that you can be torched by someone who had an atypical bad experience, but the problem goes beyond that. An ex-spouse or lover, a business rival, or just someone deranged could go to the site and report seeing rats scurrying across the floor at your place.
            Aside from actual malice, the reviews are problematic when you don’t know a reviewer. If someone writes a glowing or negative review of a restaurant, the person reading it has no way of knowing what that person’s standards are or even what the circumstances of the occasion were. Did subsequent success with romance inflate the appraisal of the meal, or vice versa?
            For much the same reasons, I don’t give much weight to the comments posted anonymously on news stories at a newspaper web site. With no accountability, the extreme views rise to the surface, the same people post over and over, and most of it doesn’t mean anything.
            By way of contrast, when I edited a daily newspaper, I was hyper-vigilant about the content of letters to the editor. I would send them back if they were unsigned, and though we didn’t publish the writer’s address, we insisted it be provided to us to verify identify. Furthermore, I edited the letters carefully, deleting material that could be libelous and taking out “factual” assertions that seemed questionable and couldn’t be verified.
Unlike the social websites, newspapers were responsible for the content of what they printed, even if submitted by someone else. New York Times v. Sullivan, the case that established much of current libel law, revolved around a paid advocacy ad the Times had run and subsequently had to defend.
Seeing that story about the rural social websites caused me to remember what my first managing editor once told me. “If we only printed the news people wanted us to print,” he said,  “we wouldn’t have a very interesting newspaper.” The internet certainly has added a new dimension to “interesting.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Best Hamburgers in the World

            Casting about for a community fund-raiser, the Rotary Club of Watsonville decided to try running a hamburger booth at the Santa Cruz County Fair in 1969. The late Bill Lewis, who had, among other things, previously run a burger stand downtown, took the lead in putting it together, and so was born the Lewisburger.
            Any object reduced to a level of utter simplicity can become a thing of beauty. The Lewisburger proves the point. It’s a patty topped with grilled onions and pickles on a toasted bun. Perfect. You can add cheese for a dollar more and put on mustard and ketchup from the dispensers at the side of the booth, but why would you? It would be like adding tail fins to a Porsche.
            This year, for about the 20th time, I put in my customary four-hour shift in the hamburger booth. It was a slow shift, and our crew had a bit of time to talk about what makes the burgers special. One crew member, who had worked at a fast-food chain in the past said it was the quality of the meat, bought from a local meat locker. Others had their ideas; I have mine.
            To begin with, the grill the burgers are cooked on probably has, even after cleaning, the residue of 30 years of grease on it. The patina is only burnished by repeated use, and by the final day of the Fair, the grill alone is giving every burger a turbo-powered flavor blast. Added to that, the salty-sweet taste of the onions and the tartness of the pickles combine to make an unforgettable taste experience. It’s a harmonic convergence, if you will.
            Whatever the reason, the magic is there, and so are its followers. Many of our customers make a point of telling us that they’ve been coming for years and look forward to our burgers every time they come to the Fair. The general trend in sales is up (with variations, depending on Fair attendance and weather), and we get plenty of young customers, who we hope and expect will be the repeat customers of the future.
            You can only get a Lewisburger during the six days of the County Fair, but after 43 years it has become something increasingly rare in today’s world: A tradition.
            It’s a tradition not only for the Fairgoers, but for the members of the Rotary Club who work in the booth year after year. With about 90 people in the club, we count on everyone to work a shift. Our Rotarian work force is augmented by volunteers from the Boy Scout troop we sponsor and from one of the schools we adopt. Making it happen becomes a community effort.
            And, as suggested earlier, it’s also a social experience. It helps cement a bond among members of a club that has been volunteering and raising money for the community since 1927. Most years I’ve gotten to work with at least one club member I didn’t know that well and always come away from the experience knowing him or her better.
            For all the volunteer effort that goes into the hamburger booth, it’s not, owing to high overhead, as much of a profit center as many fund-raisers. We typically raise under $10,000 for local charities and nonprofits, and from time to time a board member will ask if the return is worth the effort. Those discussions never go very far. How, after all, do you put a dollar value on fellowship and tradition?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lessons from the Noble Experiment

            Whenever America is going through one of its periodic periods of temporary insanity, I like to read a good book about the past episodes we somehow managed to survive. In the last year or so, that would include Richard H. Rovere’s Senator Joe McCarthy, Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and, just recently, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. All three are highly recommended, but it’s the latter I’d like to discuss today.
            I am familiar enough with alcoholism and its attendant problems not to take the subject lightly. For the same reason I don’t reflexively blame the makers and sellers of the product for all the problems caused by its abuse. A bottle of whisky, leaving the distillery or the liquor store shelf, is the same bottle of whisky regardless of whether it’s purchased by someone who drinks it at the rate of two ounces an occasional night over a period of weeks or by someone who drinks half of it in 15 minutes then gets behind the wheel of a car. In the first instance, it’s a benign pleasure; in the second it’s a potentially lethal brew.
            H.L. Mencken once defined an idealist as someone who can’t grasp that some problems have no solutions. Because the problems associated with alcohol have to be managed in the face of its widespread acceptance by the public, those problems fall into that class. Prohibitionists, seeing only the drunk in the gutter, never grasped this.
            Yet they achieved one of the most stunning, if wrong-headed, results in American political history, amending the U.S. Constitution to ban the manufacture and transport for sale of intoxicating beverages. Generally speaking, a law replaces one problem with another deemed less onerous. Prohibition didn’t even do that. It reduced overall alcohol consumption, but may have exacerbated binge drinking. Okrent quotes one drinker as saying that it was almost impossible to enjoy a leisurely drink in a speakeasy; there was a sense of urgency, of needing to drink the booze while you could.
            While the abuse of alcohol continued during Prohibition, a whole new set of problems arose, chiefly involving the creation and growth of large-scale criminal syndicates that got rich delivering a product for which there was an endless thirst. Hand in hand with the criminal enterprises went official corruption and the stink of hypocrisy as politicians (many of them drinkers) praised temperance but refused to vote any serious money for enforcing the law.
            How did it happen? Prohibitionists were never a majority, but they had the ability to deliver or deny a key bloc of votes based on a politician’s stand on alcohol. It was enough to swing almost any seriously contested election to the candidate who was dry, in word if not deed. They also were greatly helped by the apportionment of congressional and state legislative districts, which in those pre-Warren Court days vastly overrepresented small towns and rural areas at the expense of cities. So great was the legislative disparity that the state of Missouri rejected a Prohibition referendum by a 53-47 margin, and at the same election voted in a legislature that ratified the Eighteenth Amendment by a 3 to 1 margin.
            Prohibition was born largely in the culture of rural, Protestant America, fearful of immigration, urbanization and the Catholic Church. By 1920 America had become a primarily urban nation; nearly a century has passed, and a sizable minority of people (some of whom live in urban areas) are still in denial. As long as the denial persists, bad policy will surely follow.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When You're the Last to Know

            My late friend and mentor Bud O’Brien used to tell this story on himself. In the fall of 1963 he moved from Redding to Watsonville to become wire editor of the newspaper and after a couple of weeks on the job he got a day off in the middle of the week.
            He decided to finish unpacking and to clean  his new apartment, so after running out for supplies first thing in the morning, he spent the whole day in the new place getting everything right. Finally, around 7 p.m., he was finished and headed to a nearby bar for a beer before grabbing some dinner.
            When he got there, it was subdued, if not downright lugubrious. After a couple of sips of his beer he went over to an off-duty police officer he knew and said, “Kinda quite here tonight. Is something wrong?”
            The officer looked at Bud as if he were a Martian, then after a pause decided he wasn’t being played. So he said softly, “You haven’t heard? President Kennedy was assassinated today.”
            On any other day that week, Bud would have been writing the headline for that story, but because he was off work, home and unplugged (as we would say today), he was probably the last person in town to get the news. The richness of the irony was not lost on him.
            I heard about the Kennedy assassination right away because we were in school, and it was promptly announced. But I had my own unplugged moment a decade ago.
            On the day in question I had an appointment with the head of a nonprofit organization that provided counseling services to the public schools, to discuss a writing project I was doing for them. The appointment was at 9:30 a.m., and their offices were closer to my home than to my office.
            So that morning I decided to go to the appointment from home. I slept a bit late, read the morning paper and had an extra cup of coffee. I never turned on the TV or radio, and my computers were all at the office, so I didn’t check e-mail or internet. At nine o’clock I left for the appointment, with the radio off so I could think over what we had to discuss at the meeting.
            When I arrived, the office was grim and bustling more than usual. I announced myself to the receptionist, who gave me a quizzical look and said the executive director was out because of an emergency. My immediate reaction was that there must have been a violent incident at one of the schools.
            At that point one of the counselors I knew came out from the back rooms with a frown on his face. I said something to him like, “I understand Linda’s been called out. Has something happened.”
            He gave me that Have-You-Been-on-Mars look and snapped, “Haven’t you heard? Terrorists hijacked four planes this morning and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The country’s at war, and we’re going nuts trying to calm down the students.”
            So I went home and turned on the TV like everyone else.
            Generally speaking, there’s maybe one day a year the news can’t wait; the rest of the time it doesn’t matter if you learn it tomorrow or even a couple of days later. And thanks to the internet and cell phones, it’s harder than ever to get unplugged. But it’s possible for both to happen the same day, and if it ever happens to you, that feeling of not knowing what everyone else does is something you’ll never forget.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Vanishing Institutional Memory

When I joined the staff of the newspaper in 1972, at the age of 22, its City Hall reporter was a man named Howard Sheerin. Sixty three years of age, chain smoking, and hard of hearing, he had been with the paper nearly 40 years. By that time he was counting out the days to his retirement a year and a half later and most weeks generated a volume of work that would have horrified the productivity experts of today.
​Yet he was in many ways a highly valuable member of the news staff. When a local politician from the 1940s or 50s was unexpectedly dispatched to his eternal reward, Howard could turn out a masterful obituary within an hour, capturing both the essence of the man and his precise contribution to the local scene.
​There was no such thing, in those days, as computer searches for information, but with Howard close at hand, it wasn’t necessary. Everyone from the editor to a cub reporter like myself could go to him with a question of fact or context and get a solid answer.
​He was, in short, that most valuable of assets — the institutional memory of the organization. His pay didn’t reflect his value, but the same could be said of all of us.
​Fortunate is the business that has such a person, and there are fewer that do with each passing year. The modern corporate environment makes it all but impossible. For starters, staying with a company for four decades requires loyalty in two directions. Howard worked for a small family newspaper group that believed in that kind of loyalty to its employees and got it from them in return. Just inside the front door was a wall of photographs of the “Quarter Century Club,” people who had been with the company that long. Even the terms of employment were generously counted; if you left, for a period, to serve in the military, that time counted toward the 25 years.
​Few businesses foster that kind of climate any more, and few employees look for it or value it. At just about any newspaper today, Howard would have been let go in a round of layoffs and replaced with a younger man or woman, innocent of the community but able to provide more copy at a fraction of the cost.
​Newspapers themselves, which might be considered the institutional memory of the community, are similarly in danger. It is still hard to challenge the incumbent paper, even with a free, exclusively online publication. By virtue of having been around so long and having covered not only public affairs but the individual passages of life (births, deaths, marriages) for so long, the existing newspaper has a standing that is hard to topple.
​It may prove to be the case that the business model for the newspaper can’t be sufficiently adjusted to changing times and that newspapers will go away, leaving communities without their institutional memory. It may be that the entire concept of institutional memory will vanish as people come to believe that a few keystrokes on a computer can provide any answer they need. I hope not.
​The newspaper I used to work for now has no editors or reporters who were there before the year 2000. If someone dies who was active in civic affairs in the 1970s and 80s, I am likely to get a phone call or e-mail asking for a quote or information. In a sense, I have become the newspaper’s institutional memory, and the irony is not lost on me.​

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Best Time of Year Is Here

            It’s been a summer of weather extremes in America: Droughts, heat waves, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. We’ve even had extreme weather here, though since “here” is coastal California, our extreme weather is kind of boring.
            Nevertheless, the numbers don’t lie. Since I started keeping daily temperature records in 1989 this is the coldest June-August period ever. Our average high temperature for these months is in the mid-70s. This year, for the first time in 22 years, the average high for June and August was under 70. Better than heat waves and hurricanes, but still sort of steadily yucky.
            Still, I’m feeling pretty good, because starting today is what I consider to be the best time of year in Santa Cruz County — the stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.
            In our Mediterranean climate we get good weather and diverse weather during that period of nearly three months. Take the fog that has been hanging around like a sponging house guest all summer. California’s interior valleys begin cooling off this month. That means they’re not sucking in our marine air, which means less fog and typically clear, sunny days.
            Right now it’s definitely summer. Overnight lows are in the 50s, and if the fog burns off by noon or earlier, high temperatures will hit the 70s or 80s, with a couple of days in the 90s even possible. By Thanksgiving it’s winter, regardless of what the calendar says. Mornings will be in the high 30s or low 40s, and the daily high should be in the low 60s or high 50s.
            Getting there is half the fun. We cherish the summer days now because we know they’re ending, The seasonal transition is more pronounced than winter to spring, and we enjoy that as well. Leaves are beginning to turn, and that will hit its peak in mid to late October.
            Most years we’ve gone three or four months without rain at this point, the ground is bone dry and the grass on the hills has turned brown. We can expect the first serious rain of the year in October and more in November — enough to turn the hills green by Thanksgiving.
            The rain is fun those first two months because it’s a novelty and it rarely rains steadily for days at a time as it often does from December to March. The fresh smell after the first good rains have wet the earth and washed away the dust is a joy. And with those first rains and shorter days come the first fireplace fires of the season as we spend more time indoors.
            It’s not just the weather that makes this such a good time of year. This is a tourist town, and after Labor Day, the locals get it back to some extent. The roads are a lot less congested on weekends, and there’s elbow room at the beaches and parks. The university is back in session, and downtown Santa Cruz has more of a college-town feel than a tourist-town feel.
            With summer over, the pace of work typically picks up a bit, and so, with cooler air and sunnier days, do personal energy levels. It’s even the best time of year for sports, with football on weekends and the baseball playoffs and World Series.
            I try to enjoy each day for itself and live in the moment as much as possible, all year long, but these three months are special. I’ve always figured that if I’m ever diagnosed with a terminal illness and still alive on Labor Day, I do believe I’ll make it to Thanksgiving.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Two Faces of Regulation

            Every so often, when you’re reading the newspaper, you’ll come across two different stories on different pages or even sections that complement each other perfectly. Each story was chosen and put in by an different editor, who was probably unaware of the other story, and it’s up to the reader to connect the dots between the two.
            God, I love newspapers.
            It happened earlier this week in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and the two stories I’m talking about related to government regulation of private business. One story was on the front page and one was on the business page.
            The front page story had to do with a problem that occurred owing, in significant part, to a lack of regulation. The National Transportation Safety Board issued a report on the explosion, in 2010, of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline under the city of San Bruno, CA, resulting in major loss of life and property.
            Among the findings of the NTSB were that PG&E had installed the pipe with a faulty weld in 1956, with no government inspection involved; had no records on file as to who installed it; never ran regular tests on its lines; and failed to respond adequately to indications that the pressure on the pipe was reaching dangerous levels.
            PG&E took the biggest hit in the report, but not the only one. The NTSB was also critical of the California Public Utilities Commission and the federal Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for inadequate supervision of the utility’s pipeline system. “For government to do its job — safeguard the public — it cannot trust alone, it must verify through effective oversight,” said Deborah Hershman, chair of the NTSB.
            That was the story about insufficient regulation. On the business page, the story was about problematic regulation.
            Graniterock, a Watsonville rock, gravel and concrete business, emerged victorious after a 14-day trial over state regulations covering employee lunch breaks. The company, a past winner of the Baldrige Award for business excellence, had been allowing its concrete-truck drivers to skip legally required meal breaks in exchange for extra pay and getting off work early. Several drivers filed a class-action suit alleging violation of state law regulating working conditions.
            After hearing the evidence, a superior court judge ruled that the company had made meal breaks available, but employees had freely chosen not to take them in exchange for other consideration. The company CEO was quoted as saying that freshly poured concrete is highly perishable and that the company offered pay and quitting-time options to provide the flexibility needed for its timely delivery. Several drivers testified that they appreciated that flexibility and that the company had also worked with them to be flexible on other personal-leave issues.
            An obvious question here is why lost lunch breaks seem to have gotten more regulatory attention than faulty pipelines transmitting a highly explosive substance, but the vagaries of government interest are fodder for another blog. What the two stories really illustrate are the policy choices that have to be made.
            Policies and the people who implement them are imperfect, and at the end of the day a representative government often has to decide which problem society would be better off bearing. Regulate business too tightly and you could have a good company spending two weeks in a trial over lunch-break policies. Regulate business too lightly and you could end up with an explosion that kills eight people, destroys more than 30 homes and creates a fireball in a residential neighborhood.
            Which problem would you rather have? I know my answer.