Media critic Brent Bozell calls it the “celebrity asylum”, and that’s a pretty apt description, for in this society increasingly driven by various degrees of voyeurism, the constant 24/7 media obsession with stories on the likes of Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears feeds an audience obviously fixated on lifestyles and behavior the attraction to which borders on insanity. And, much worse for our future, the attention paid to these stories and the priority assigned to them by the all-encompassing popular culture is at best sending mixed messages to our youth. In fact, I wish all of it were required to be broadcast with a disclaimer, such as “the following celebrity update includes scenes from a lifestyle and life choices that represents potential hazards to physical and psychological health and are not recommended by this network or its sponsors” (good luck!).
In case any of us think we can observe all of this in detachment without feeling guilty or responsible, consider this comment from Bozell, which is dead on point: “The media cannibals who love chewing on [these celebrities], and watching their profits soar as a result, are refusing to reflect, even for a moment, on the damage done to the children who gather at the temple of celebrity worship. But we—a society that is not sufficiently ashamed of itself to denounce this cultural rot simply by walking away from it—we are the ultimate enablers.”
We can add to this not totally unrelated phenomenon the degree to which our elections, particularly at the Presidential level, are essentially celebrity-driven and have lost any semblance of serious debate about the future of this country. As a result, they are likewise covered in a superficial manner—who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down, who’s going “negative”, who’s responding, blah, blah, blah. Marshall McLuhan famously coined the term, “the medium is the message”, and, unfortunately, at an increasingly disturbing level we are making him into a brilliant prophet.
Recently I commented on one of my favorite thinkers, Peter Drucker, who died late last year. More recently, I read a review essay by Adrian Wooldridge on Drucker’s thought as described in a new book on his life and was struck by the following fact: 7 of the 10 companies that have seen the biggest growth in share value over the past five years did not exist twenty years ago! What more significant evidence of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” is there? And what more evidence of the wisdom of Drucker’s opinion that the challenges facing companies now are more dramatic than anything seen in his lifetime? These points served to remind me of his most critical advice, which is that these new realities demand that institutions completely rethink everything. And by everything, he meant just that, but primarily a fierce focus on core competencies. My anecdotal reflection on how well American institutions “get it” and have accomplished this over the past couple of decades is fairly positive, at least in the private sector.
The major failure in adopting this mindset has been with government at all levels, and especially those government institutions that deliver K-12 education. Note the following comments (unusually Drucker-like coming from an educator) by Joel Klein, New York City school chancellor, to a CEO summit on education: “Other than global security, I don’t think there’s a more important issue facing our nation—and I don’t think as a nation we’re remotely serious enough about the issue…there needs to be a profound shift……the whole educational system is run on the myth that we can figure out through a compliance-based model a way to manage ourselves to success…..if there was ever a set of dysfunctional incentives, it’s in public education…”. Drucker would be pleased, and we need more of this attitude, but I frankly don’t hear enough of our education or business leaders talking in these terms.
If the states are to serve as laboratory models with guidance on how to fix health care finance, there are already some models to avoid. One is in California, which is essentially proposing a plan to tax, spend, and regulate the state’s path to universal coverage, with an enormous additional subsidy from the Federal government. I’m sure there are many in the new Democratic majority in Washington including a few Presidential candidates, who welcome this leadership as a possible precursor to a national plan. It’s a recipe for disaster. A slightly better but still flawed plan is the one Massachusetts adopted early last year, which is too heavy on regulation and mandates, but does offer a way to equalize tax treatment of insurance premiums. In Texas, the lawsuit reform measures that cap non-economic medical malpractice damages have already improved the health insurance market, and the Texas Association of Business has some productive recommendations for Texas policy-makers that include expansion of consumer-directed health plans, increased information on cost and quality of plans, prohibition of so-called “balance billing”, reforms to physician referrals, and expansion of Medicaid managed care. In his State of the Union message, President Bush proposed a plan that has merit, particularly in ending the preferential tax treatment for employer-provided medical insurance that is a relic of the World War II wage and price control system. This, along with continued expansion of Health Savings Accounts, represents progress, but still isn’t bold enough.
For a bolder and better path, let’s listen to the late Milton Friedman in a Hoover Institution interview for the World Health Congress a year before his death. In answer to the question as to how he would reform the U. S. health care system, other than getting the government entirely out of the health care business, which he favored, he responded with two additional suggestions:
*Eliminate the tax exemption of employer-provided medical care insurance, because there is no reason to treat medical care differently from other essential goods, and businesses could then use the money to increase direct wages so that employees could then make their own health care insurance decisions.
*Nationalize the health insurance market by eliminating regulatory barriers to purchasing insurance across state lines, which are protectionist measures that are probably unconstitutional violations of the commerce clause.
“Congress faces a choice…..: Will we allow our actions to be driven by the changing conditions on the ground in Iraq or by the unchanging political and ideological positions long ago staked out in Washington? What ultimately matters more to us: the real fight over there, or the political fight over here?”—Joe Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal, 2-26-07.
“……there is a world beyond Pennsylvania Avenue that is watching and listening. What we say here is being heard in Baghdad by Iraqi moderates, trying to decide if the Americans will stand with them. We are being heard by our men and women in uniform, who will be interested to know whether we support the plan they have begun to carry out. We are being heard by the leaders of the thuggish regimes in Iran and Syria, and by Al Quaeda terrorists, eager for evidence that America’s will is breaking. And we are being heard across America by our constituents, who are wondering if their Congress is capable of serious action, not just hollow posturing.”—Joe Lieberman on the Senate floor, 2-5-07.
These excerpts are representative of a degree of statesmanship that has become exceedingly rare in our politics. As a result, Senator Lieberman has now worked himself into position as the last remaining Truman/Kennedy/Jackson Democrat, a position that is about as lonely as it gets in the current configuration of the Congressional leadership and the mainstream of the Democratic Party. But in the process he also has developed into the Arthur Vandenberg of the current foreign policy crisis. Sen. Vandenberg of Michigan was the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (a position occupied today by Joe Biden) who, in 1947, despite the strong incentives and desire of his party to undermine President Truman in advance of the election of 1948, strongly supported Truman in his proposals for aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan to salvage Europe, and the founding of NATO, which spearheaded the containment of Soviet Communism that lasted until its defeat in 1991. Clearly, Joe Biden could have been an Arthur Vandenberg and hasn’t chosen to be one, while Joe Lieberman already is.
Some observers have suggested that Lieberman’s position on the war in Iraq represents a bias that should be expected from one of his “tribe”, a deeply cynical view not worthy of the statesmanship on display here. And, incidentally, more to this point, I would ask: to what tribe do I belong?
Professor Ruth Wisse of Harvard sternly corrects those who say that university faculties are increasingly “liberal”: “Liberalism worthy of the name emphasizes freedom of the individual, democracy, and the rule of law……..What we see on the American campus is not liberalism, but a gutted and gutless “gliberalism”, that leaves to others the responsibility for governance, and arrogates to itself the right to criticize. It accepts money from the public purse without assuming reciprocal duties for the public good.”