July 27, 2007

Champion of consumer rights leaves the Chronicle

"Investigative business columnist" David Lazarus is headed to the LA Times.

Since coming to the Chronicle from Wired News in 1999, David Lazarus has been one of the most prolific, and influential, writers at the paper. His coverage of the energy crisis in 2001 earned him the Journalist of the Year award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter. He continues to butt heads with corporate executives and write stories that unambiguously take the side of consumers.

In his final column, he calls for the reawakening of a dormant consumer movement, with muckraking reporters on the corporate watchdog beat leading the charge alongside advocates.

It's a point he made repeatedly during our conversation - that the biggest difference between now and then is that the media have lost interest in consumer advocacy as both a story and a calling.

This, in turn, leaves the consumer movement to a great extent voiceless.

...Still, I attend a lot of public events and I can say with confidence that most consumers haven't given up when it comes to defending their rights. They're frustrated - that goes without saying. They often feel that companies are dedicated solely to outmaneuvering customers.

But people aren't hopeless. They just want to be treated fairly.

...There was a time when businesses believed the customer is always right. That's an exaggeration, of course, but there's a grain of truth in it. Businesses understood that if you treat customers right, they'll keep coming back.

...These days, the shareholder is always right. Businesses focus almost exclusively on placating investors by delivering steady growth quarter after quarter. And to maintain a consistently robust bottom line, many companies reduce overhead by repeatedly cutting back on service.

Lazarus said he never envisioned himself launching a "one-man consumer crusade against corporate malfeasance."

I don't think there's any mistaking that my work is fairly populist in its sentiment. The rap on what I do is that I'm anti-business -- that's what my critics like to say most often than not. I see myself more as pro-accountability. ... Corporations should be accountable. And if you're going to do something, especially if it affects thousands or millions of customers, you should be able to defend that policy...

I was excited to hear that the organization I work with (the Consumer Federation of California) recognized Lazarus with its Journalist of the Year award in 2004. This year SF Weekly named him the city's best columnist:

With the Chron's business section too often serving as a bulletin board for industry press releases, Lazarus brings a healthy dose of skepticism to the notion that corporate America knows best.
The touching farewell:

Not that long ago, my young son finally got around to asking why Daddy's picture appears in the newspaper.

"Well," I replied, "that's because I try to help people and protect them from bad guys."

My son stewed on that for a moment. His eyes lit up.

"Daddy!" he exclaimed. "You're Batman!"

I'm going to miss Gotham. But Metropolis should be fun, too.

I'll be watching for him in the LAT.

Side note: Lazarus is in very good company as a Crossroads alum.

July 25, 2007

The truth about "socialized medicine"

With SiCKO ranking in the top 5 grossing documentaries of all time, millions of Americans are unleashing a healthy sense of moral outrage over our inadequate and exorbitantly expensive system of private health care. Bush and his fellow insurance industry apologists are running scared, pushing back against the rising groundswell in favor of revolutionizing our health care system.

Chronicle columnist David Lazarus points out that Bush should be the last person to deride government-run health care, with taxpayers having just foot the bill for his colonoscopy. What's more, Bush's argument for why he'd veto Congress' bill to provide care to millions of uninsured children mischaracterizes what health care reform really entails:

Bush wasn't being entirely accurate when he derided the notion of government-run health care for every American. That might make for a fine little sound bite, especially among those who fear the specter of "socialized medicine," but it's not really what's at stake.

Rather, advocates of health care reform are seeking government-run insurance for every American, leaving the health care part to those who know best - doctors and nurses.

This is a crucial distinction at a time when 47 million Americans lack medical coverage and, according to researchers at Harvard University, about a third of the $2 trillion spent annually on health care in this country is squandered on bureaucratic overhead.

"Cuba is socialized medicine," observed Dr. Kevin Grumbach, who heads the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF. "The government employs all the physicians and owns all the hospitals. That's not what anyone is talking about for this country."

Rather, the focus here is on two indisputable facts: that the United States spends about twice as much per person on health care as most other industrialized democracies, and that Americans on average do not live as long as people in countries that guarantee medical coverage to their citizens.

As for those long waiting lines? Paul Krugman spells it out:

It’s true that Americans get hip replacements faster than Canadians. But there’s a funny thing about that example, which is used constantly as an argument for the superiority of private health insurance over a government-run system: the large majority of hip replacements in the United States are paid for by, um, Medicare.

That’s right: the hip-replacement gap is actually a comparison of two government health insurance systems. American Medicare has shorter waits than Canadian Medicare (yes, that’s what they call their system) because it has more lavish funding — end of story. The alleged virtues of private insurance have nothing to do with it.

Michael Moore took CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta to task for a similar attempt to obfuscate the issue of health care reform (which Gupta has since recanted).

Health care policy wonk Ezra Klein has also done his part to encourage a shift from red-baiting to substantive debate in discrediting the Walter Reid/Veteran's Administration talking point:

Klein: Let's talk you about the socialized system. We have the VA.
Kudlow: I don't think the VA works in spots. But since you asked me, what we learned about the VA is that certain of those hospitals have completely run down in care and need to be replaced. Klein: Are you talking about Walter Reed?
Kudlow: We have number one.
Klein: Walter Reid is part of an army hospital, not part of the VA.
Kudlow: With regard to the prescription drug program, you can't get the drugs you need.
Klein: Here's what I don't understand. Rand Corporation ranked VA highest on quality. The Internal Medicine ranked it highest. The New England Journal ranked it had highest on quality. They keep health care costs down and they have slower spending. I don't understand what you don't like.

Single-payer advocates have the facts on their side. Opponents only have diversions.

July 01, 2007

Putting the specter of terrorism into perspective

Olbermann talks about the "myth of the omnipresent enemy" and provides a platform for the voice of reason on this overblown non-story.

We saw about three years ago, General Richard Meyers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say that the threat of terrorism was the greatest threat we face in this country, in the U.S., since the Civil War. And what we know factually is that fewer than 50,000, not just Americans, but all people worldwide, have died from international terrorism since 1968. We lose 50 million people plus in WWII and we have someone like General Meyers saying that this is the greatest threat? It’s a threat, but we need to put it in its proper perspective and go back and remember the words of FDR—it’s the fear! If we allow the fear to conquer us and drive us to do things like allow Guantanamo, like allow torture, we ourselves become victims of the very things that we say we’re trying to fight. You know, I think big deep breaths, remain calm, and let’s stop with some of the alarmist behavior. --Larry Johnson, counterterrorism expert

And let's not legitimize xenophobes by breathlessly reporting that the perpetrators are of Middle Eastern descent, or make unsubstantiated allusions to Al-Qaeda. The BBC doc "The Power of Nighmares" and Seymour Hersh both view Al-Qaeda as a convenient fiction--in reality little more than a looseknit "phantom of the U.S. national security apparatus." As Jason Burke, author of "Al Qaeda" contends in the film:

The idea—which is critical to the FBI’s prosecution—that bin Laden ran a coherent organisation with operatives and cells all around the world of which you could be a member is a myth. There is no Al Qaeda organisation. There is no international network with a leader, with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe. That idea of a coherent, structured terrorist network with an organised capability simply does not exist.

Without a simple, distinct enemy, there'd be no conduit in which to channel hatred and fear. Unprocessed political realities are often much too complex and abstract for this. Buzzwords are more accessible and successful in arousing the type of emotion needed to promote warmaking. It's this kind of soundbyte-ready fearmongering and cable news complicity that Al Gore assails in the first chapter of The Assault on Reason. Started it today--definitely a timely read.