Swans Commentary » swans.com February 9, 2009  



National Priorities In The Economic And Digital Divide


by Jan Baughman





(Swans - February 9, 2009)   Heaven forbid that Americans should face the dire consequences of losing their television lifeline. There was, it would appear, no life before television, and now it is soon to become more colorful, crisp, and informative than ever thanks to the transition from analog to digital. This move is so important that the House cast an important vote to delay the switch by four months, so as not to leave the few dinosaurs (about 20 million) who still rely on rabbit ears for reception, or have been unpatriotic by not purchasing a new TV since 2007, in the dark and cut off from the important information this medium provides. Skeptics of the switch state that the motive was to expand the markets for the television stations that broadcast hours of mindless, escapist entertainment and the cell phone companies that seek new, more powerful (i.e., profitable) means to keep us affixed to our iPods and Blackberries. As evidenced in a recent New York Times article, "Verizon and AT&T paid billions for access to the spectrum and are waiting to introduce new products using it," and "Television networks continue to worry that their ratings will drop, at least temporarily, when would-be viewers discover that their televisions no longer work." It's all a matter of national priorities; in other words, ensuring corporate profit through government subsidies in the form of $1.34 billion dollars to provide digital converter boxes for the dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, newspapers continue to suffer the demise of print access to information (and advertising dollars), and the same Congress that is concerned about Americans' access to information has been palpably silent on that matter -- perhaps its members are hoping that what's left of serious reporting and investigative journalism will die a quick if not painful death and leave them to their unexposed antics. Not so in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a nine-fold increase in government support for newspaper deliveries and doubled its annual print advertising. And -- imagine this -- is subsidizing free newspaper subscriptions to teenagers on their 18th birthday. Said Sarkozy, "It is indeed [the state's] responsibility ... to make sure an independent, free and pluralistic press exists." Quelle connerie!

But enough about media access -- regarding access to health care, President Obama signed a bill on Wednesday extending health coverage through the SCHIP program to an additional 4 million uninsured children, bringing the total coverage to 11 million at an additional cost of $32.8 billion ($8,200 per child), funded in part by a 62-cent increase in the federal cigarette excise tax, a move that he states is "only the first step" in providing insurance for all. How do we define "all"? What is the next step? Is it insuring the 45.7 million uninsured? Do we cast a wider net to the 116 million people -- the uninsured, underinsured, and those insured and struggling to pay their medical bills? What about all 305-plus million of us? In the end, how many Americans will have to smoke in order for cigarette taxes to provide health insurance for all? And if the increased cigarette tax acts as deterrent, as the proponents of such tax have historically argued, then the economic "gain" to society will, over time, diminish, thereby running the insurance funds dry. If it turns out to be as effective a deterrent as, say, the death penalty, then what will on earth will we tax next in order to pay for all the additional health consequences of smoking -- watching television? Lottery tickets?

Which brings us to the lottery, packaged not as a wasteful endeavor but as an inexpensive ticket to the American Dream, where even if you "lose" you're a winner since you're contributing to the betterment of society, whether it's funding education, or subsidizing Indian Gaming to help the peoples who survived just fine -- actually, better -- before we stole their land and livelihood. Twenty percent of Americans spend about $60 billion a year on the lottery, according to David Brooks in a 2008 New York Times article. Sixty billion dollars a year is a high price tag for false hope -- the odds of winning the USA Mega Lotto Jackpot are 1 in 175,711,536. Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, with its years of deception and $50 billion in losses, is tame in comparison. And for $8,200 per child, that money could provide health insurance to an additional 7,317,073 children, many of whom are probably living in those lottery-hopeful households.

While Congress considers the billions if not trillions of dollars it will print in an attempt to resuscitate the mythical American Dream, we continue to play a zero-sum game between corporations and individuals. As always, it is the individuals who stand to lose the most, forced to play the odds with their health, but at least soon able to watch their demise on a functioning television set emitting a colorful, crisp, and informative digital image.


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Published February 9, 2009