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Daily Howler: Olbermann (almost) got it right. Then came Margaret Carlson
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DEFINING HEALTH REFORM DOWN! Olbermann (almost) got it right. Then came Margaret Carlson: // link // print // previous // next //

How well can we humans explain things: This one is just for us—athough it has been more than 100 years now!

Reading Thursday’s New York Times, our eye sped to a murky part of Dennis Overbye’s science report. (The report appeared on page A17, right next to the health care reporting.) The headline gives you the basic idea of the piece: Once again, Einstein’s theory has turned out to be right!

OVERBYE (10/29/09): 7.3 Billion Light-Years Later, Einstein's Theory Prevails

Astronomers said Wednesday that a race halfway across the universe had ended in a virtual tie. And so the champion is still Albert Einstein—for now.

The race was between gamma rays of differing energies and wavelengths spit in a burst from an exploding star when the universe was half its present age. After a journey of 7.3 billion light-years, they all arrived within nine-tenths of a second of one another in a detector on NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, at 8:22 p.m., Eastern time, on May 9.

Astronomers said the gamma-ray race was one of the most stringent tests yet of a bedrock principle of modern physics: Einstein's proclamation in his 1905 theory of relativity that the speed of light is constant and independent of its color, or energy; its direction; or how you yourself are moving.

Overbye (no relation) is one of the country’s top science reporters. We took delight in the murky writing in that highlighted passage.

Our question: Why would Einstein have to proclaim that the speed of light is independent of the way you yourself are moving? Who would have thought something else was true? What could that statement mean?


If someone throws a baseball at you, who would feel he had to proclaim, then go on to prove, that the speed of the baseball is independent of the way you yourself are moving? If the baseball is thrown at 100 miles per hour, who would think its speed would change depending on what you do?

Ditto with the speed of light: If a light ray is moving toward you from a distant star, who would think its speed would change depending on how you yourself were moving? Why would Einstein feel he had to “proclaim” that its speed wouldn’t change even if you started to move?

Science writers have had 104 years to work out their explanation of what Einstein said—in this “bedrock principle.” Here’s our question: Did anyone reading Thursday’s Times really understand what Overbye wrote? We know, we know! Some of you think you can explain what he said. But we’ll guess that you maybe can’t. Not exactly really.

Science writers have had 104 years—but their editors keep waving statements like that into print. That said:

If we can’t do better than that after 104 years of practice, how well do you think we can explain the current state of health reform? The current state of educational standards-or-testing?

In this morning’s Times, we thought Robert Pear was very murky on various aspects of health reform. Ditto for Sam Dillon, writing a highly ambiguous piece about shifting educational “standards.” On Monday, we may look at those reports. But good grief! If we still can’t explain what Einstein proclaimed, when will the Times be ready to shed clear light on these much newer topics?

DEFINING HEALTH REFORM DOWN: It’s “the defining moment” for health reform, Paul Krugman correctly says in this morning’s column.

But hasn’t this also become the moment for defining health reform down? We refer to something that seems to have changed as Krugman starts his column:

KRUGMAN (10/30/09): O.K., folks, this is it. It's the defining moment for health care reform.

Past efforts to give Americans what citizens of every other advanced nation already have—guaranteed access to essential care—have ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, usually dying in committee without ever making it to a vote.

But this time, broadly similar health-care bills have made it through multiple committees in both houses of Congress. And on Thursday, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, unveiled the legislation that she will send to the House floor, where it will almost surely pass. It's not a perfect bill, by a long shot, but it's a much stronger bill than almost anyone expected to emerge even a few weeks ago. And it would lead to near-universal coverage.

Let’s assume that the House bill would in fact “lead to near-universal coverage.” In the past, didn’t we also speak about giving people “access to affordable care?” In this column, “affordable” has largely made way for “essential” (see highlighted statement above)—except when the House bill “includes more generous subsidies than expected, making it easier for lower-income families to afford coverage.” Alas! Presumably, those generous subsidies are necessary because the bill will do next to nothing about the astonishing cost of insurance premiums. And guess what? Employers and those persons who don’t qualify for subsidies will still have to grapple with those daunting costs. For the vast majority of consumers, Krugman’s column says little or nothing about the discarded matter of affordable costs.

For ourselves, we would vote for this bill whether it contained a public option which was robust, opt-in, opt-out or trigger. But in our view, the looting seems to have stayed in the picture as the question of affordable care disappears:

This brings us to Tuesday evening’s Countdown, when Keith Olbermann (almost) got it right.

Olbermann’s second topic on Tuesday was a major—and pleasant—surprise. A new study by Thomson Reuters had attempted to quantify the (gigantic) amount of wasteful spending in our health care system; Olbermann spent an entire segment discussing what the new study said! To be honest, Olbermann didn’t do a good job with this topic—in large part, because his staff had booked a non-expert guest. But how about credit where credit is due? Olbermann actually spent some minutes discussing a major topic which all parties, political and journalistic, have largely agreed to deep-six.

No, he didn’t do a good job. But this is the way he started:

OLBERMANN (10/27/09): President Obama has often said that eliminating waste and inefficiency in the health care system could pay for most of any health care reform package. Critics have howled that there could not possibly be that much waste.

And in our fourth story on the Countdown: A remarkable independent study not only supports Obama but proves he may have vastly underestimated just how much waste there is.

The U.S. health care system wastes at least $505 billion, perhaps $850 billion every year. This is according to an independent study by Thomson- Reuters, the international news and information organization with expertise in health care and science.

The vice president of health care analysis for that group saying, quote, "That`s one-third of the nation’s health care bill. The good news is that by attacking waste, we can reduce health care cost without adversely affecting the quality of care or access to care."

Other findings from the study: 37 percent of waste, $200 billion to $300 billion a year, comes from unnecessary care, like the overused of antibiotics or lab tests to protect, in part, against malpractice exposure. 22 percent of health care waste, up to $200 billion, is created by fraud. 18 percent of it comes from administrative inefficiency and redundant paper. 11 percent of waste derives from medical mistakes. And preventable conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes cost $30 billion to $50 billion a year by themselves—that’s about 6 percent to 10 percent of health care waste.

All of this explaining why the U.S. spends far more per person on health care than any other industrialized nation. For example, the average U.S. hospital spends a quarter of its budget—a quarter—on billing and administration. And it’s about twice as much as Canadian hospitals do.

Let’s turn to the executive director of the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee, Rose Ann Demoro.

There were problems with Olbermann’s presentation, including his obvious attempt to pander to us right in that opening paragraph. Some, though not all, of the problems:

Have Obama’s critics really “howled that there could not possibly be that much waste” in our health care spending? More often, all sectors—pro-reform and anti-reform—have simply ignored this topic.

Is this new study really “remarkable?” In fact, it makes the types of claims which such studies always produce. These studies always produce these claims—after which, they get ignored by all major sectors in our pseudo-discussion. (For an earlier example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/19/09.)

Does the United States “spend far more per person on health care than any other industrialized nation?” Yes, but we’re always annoyed when expositors state it that way. How many people in Olbermann’s audience understand what “far more” really means in this context? Olbermann never presented the simple data which would have shown the astonishing size of our over-spending, as compared to that in the rest of the world. Instead, he offered a hugely irrelevant micro-example in which our hospitals spend almost twice as much as Canadian counterparts.

Guess what, crackers? Our health care system as a whole spends almost twice as much as Canada’s! We spend more than twice as much as the French—and we start to incline toward three times as much when we talk about Span, Japan, Italy.

Aaargh! Olbermann offered a largely pointless mini-example—but failed to present the Big Honking Picture. In this way, we fiery cable viewers remain dumb, barefoot, uninformed.

After this, Olbermann brought out Demoro, who may serve with distinction at the CNA but seemed to be over her head with this topic. She fawned to her host in predictable ways and emoted in ways which this program demands. But she showed little sign of real expertise concerning this daunting topic.

Afterwards, Olbermann moved to his next topic: To an utterly foolish segment in which he and Margaret Carlson kicked Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich all around. They mugged and clowned for us liberal rubes about the ongoing race in New York’s 23rd House district. But right from Olbermann’s top-of-the-show introduction, neither performer seemed to have any real idea what Gingrich has actually said on this (basically pointless) topic. But then, most of the work on our liberal programs is just comfort food for us liberal rubes. After wasting his time with Carlson, Olbermann wasted his time pretending that an obscure Georgia congressman was the world’s worst person—while pretending that he was angry about it. He then wasted time with Gene Robinson, who dumbed himself down to please us rubes with predictable, mocking talk about George Bush’s motivational speaking.

We got to laugh at Bush’s dumb speech. And we stayed dumb about spending.

To his credit, Olbermann actually raised the question of our astonishing level of spending. But he discussed the topic poorly—and quickly moved on to the silly tricks with which he dumbs liberals down.

Back to Krugman’s column: Whatever happened to the idea that health reform (a health “overhaul”) would involve making health care “affordable”—would involve bringing our astonishing spending in line with that found in the rest of the world? Would involve lowering our absurdly expensive premiums? By now, that idea has basically been disappeared. As best we can tell from the Nexis archives, Olbermann was the only host, broadcast or cable, to discuss this new study in prime time this week. Beyond that, the AP doesn’t seem to have filed a report. No newspapers seem to have reported on this new study.

Should this study have been reported? Unclear. But every sector has kept you clueless this year about the massive over-spending which drives American health care. As of 2007, your country spent $7300 per person per year. France spent only $3600; Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Japan spent substantially less than that! But the entire American “press corps”—including progressive cable entertainers and clowns—have joined both major political parties in ignoring this astonishing story.

The looting has stayed in the system! Everyone has rolled up his or her sleeves, helping maintain our astonishing level of spending. In the process, Keith makes five million—and Rachel makes one. May our corporate democracy thrive!

To his credit, Olbermann briefly discussed this topic. But he didn’t discuss it well—and a series of clowns came next.