Number 559 August 15, 2014

This Week:Kids, Health, Drones

"Quote" of the Week: "It's About Land"
Off the Front Page: Poor Kids of Color in Minnesota
The Parasitic Private Sector and Health Care Overhead
Meanwhile, In Afghanistan...


News organizations make money by attracting the attention of people whom advertisers want to reach. That's a fundamental flaw, as it results unavoidably in a focus on the dramatic and the sensational. This is a big problem, bigger than many people realize. The problem is that a lot of important news that isn't sensational doesn't get covered. What makes it a big problem is that the things that remain uncovered are very often the social, political, economic, and other factors that produce the sensational "news" that we do see. Then the explosion, when it does come, is widely seen but poorly understood.

So our TV sets bring us images of bombs falling in Gaza, and angry protests in Ferguson, Missouri. But our media has done a poor job of bringing home to the general public the context and background that gives rise to the drama. Without a visceral understanding of the daily humiliations and injustices that have gone on for years and provide the fuel for the fires burning on the screens in our living rooms, people become susceptible to simple explanations, and begin to look for simple solutions. And that trick never works.

Every story in this issue of the Notes has to do with chronic problems not making it onto the front pages where they belong. In one, child poverty is buried on the inside pages. In another, the chronic waste in our private health insurance system is obscured. And in the final one, U.S. violence is hidden from public view, preserving support in this country for a program that is making us all less safe.

Welcome to the new readers this week! This is not a typical issue of Nygaard Notes. And that's because... there IS no typical when it comes to Nygaard Notes. Stick around for a while and see for yourself.



"Quote" of the Week: "It's About Land"

Choosing from among the 10 trillion relevant "Quotes" this week was not easy. But I settled on the following quote from the amazing Robert Fisk, writing in the July 9th Independent of London. The article was headlined "The True Gaza Back-story That the Israelis Aren't Telling this Week."

The Israeli town of Sderot is often mentioned in U.S. news reports, as in this July 29th reference in the New York Times: "Sderot, the Israeli town of 24,000 near Gaza's northeast corner, has become a symbol worldwide after being battered by rockets from Gaza for 13 years."

With that in mind, consider the words of Robert Fisk:

"It's about land. The Israelis of Sderot are coming under rocket fire from the Palestinians of Gaza and now the Palestinians are getting their comeuppance. Sure. But wait, how come all those Palestinians—all 1.5 million—are crammed into Gaza in the first place? Well, their families once lived, didn't they, in what is now called Israel? And got chucked out—or fled for their lives—when the Israeli state was created.

"And—a drawing in of breath is now perhaps required—the people who lived in Sderot in early 1948 were not Israelis, but Palestinian Arabs. Their village was called Huj. Nor were they enemies of Israel. Two years earlier, these same Arabs had actually hidden Jewish Haganah fighters from the British Army. But when the Israeli army turned up at Huj on 31 May 1948, they expelled all the Arab villagers—to the Gaza Strip! Refugees, they became. David Ben Gurion (Israel's first Prime Minister) called it an 'unjust and unjustified action'. Too bad. The Palestinians of Huj were never allowed back.

"And today, well over 6,000 descendants of the Palestinians from Huj—now Sderot—live in the squalor of Gaza, among the 'terrorists' Israel is claiming to destroy and who are shooting at what was Huj. Interesting story."

To read the entire article click HERE.


Off the Front Page: Poor Kids of Color in Minnesota

"More Minnesota Kids Live in Poverty." That was the headline on page 2 of the "Metro" Section of my local newspaper on July 23rd. This important article refers to new numbers on child welfare that were published the day before in the annual "Kids Count" report put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Here are some of the crucial information that may startle—or shock—readers who think of Minnesota as a "nice" state:

The good news is that Minnesota ranks No. 5 in the nation for child well-being.

"But," says the Star Trib, "the number of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods has doubled, from 3 percent in 2000 to 6 percent in 2012. Despite the economic recovery of the past six years, 15 percent of Minnesotan children lived in poverty in 2012, up three percentage points from 2005."

Here's the part that should place this story on the front page:

"While [the overall poverty rate] compared well to other states, poverty rates among Minnesota's minority children are some of the worst in the nation. Almost half [46 percent] of African-American children lived in poverty in 2012, along with 38 percent of American Indian children, 30 percent of Hispanic or Latino children, and 20 percent of Asian children."

The article never uses the word "white," but the poverty rate among "Non-Hispanic white" kids in Minnesota is actually lower than it was in 2010. It now stands at 8 percent.

Not only is the racial disparity huge and shocking, but "All the minority poverty rates [in Minnesota] exceed the national average," the newspaper says.

This is tremendously important information about kids in my state. The Kids Count report from which the data were drawn has similar information for each state, and for the nation as a whole, and that national picture also begs for prominent coverage. Yet the Star Tribune didn't even consider it worthy of the front page of the METRO section. The front page of the paper that day carried a story about the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent in support of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game that was held in Minneapolis the previous week. That's an important story, no doubt. But what if the Star Trib had placed the Kids Count story next to that one? If they had, maybe the misplaced priorities of our political leaders would have come into clearer focus. And maybe that focus would get people to start trying to figure out how to counter the racism in our systems and structures that allows such criminal disparities to go on year after year after year.

The Kids Count report has all kinds of data, not just on poverty. Find information on kids in your state, and then pester your local newspaper to put this stuff on the front page.


The Parasitic Private Sector and Health Care Overhead

My local paper, the Star Tribune, had an article on the front page of the Business section on July 24th about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Health care news is often found in the Business section, which is a rather telling fact if you stop to think about it.

But, wherever it appeared, this story was interesting more for what it omitted than for what it included. And what it included was fairly important. The article began like this:

"Insurers will refund about $330 million in premiums to 6.8 million consumers across the country in the coming weeks as a result of the Affordable Care Act. About $523,000 of that will funnel into Minnesota businesses, according to federal data to be released Thursday."

Why the refunds? Well, it's because of the "80/20 Rule," also known as the "MLR Rule." MLR stands for Medical Loss Ratio, and that is the percentage of income from premiums paid for insurance that actually gets spent on providing health care. So the law says that insurance companies cannot spend more than 20 percent of premium dollars on things like marketing, executive salaries, bonuses, and other non-health-related stuff.

The story appeared in the paper because the federal Department of Health and Human Services put out a report saying that the 80/20 Rule "and other Affordable Care Act standards contributed to consumers saving approximately $4.1 billion on premiums in 2013, for a total of $9 billion in savings since the MLR program's inception." The report also notes that "since the rule took effect, more insurers year over year are meeting the 80/20 standard by spending more of the premium dollars they collect on patient care and quality, and not red tape and bonuses."

The Star Tribune report tells us that Minnesota Senator Al Franken is "pleased to see cost-saving measures play out," adding that "Rebate payments have dropped drastically nationwide and in Minnesota since the '80/20 rule' took effect three years ago... The shrinking payments are a sign that the 80/20 standard is working, advocates say."

What we learn from this article, and from similar articles around the country, is that LOTS of insurance companies are spending more than 20% of their revenue on marketing, executive salaries, and bureaucracy. (Otherwise they wouldn't be forced to pay so many refunds.) And we also learn that the amount of refunds is decreasing every year, which means that before Obamacare kicked in there were even MORE companies that were spending more than 20 percent on things other than the health care they are supposed to be paying for.

When the Star Tribune talks about "advocates" who say the 80/20 Rule is "working," I don't know what advocates they are talking about, nor do I know what these anonymous people may be "advocating." But the advocates I know, who are advocating for a health-based system to replace our insurance-based system, have something else to say. And here we come to the important omission that prevents people from understanding how absurd a profit-based insurance system really is:

We already have a single-payer health care system in this country. It's called Medicare, and the most recent figures reported by the Medicare Trustees show that overhead costs add up to 1.4 percent of revenue.

That's right: The Affordable Care Act mandates that the money that private insurance companies spend on overhead can be no more than 14 times what would be spent under a single-payer system. If you don't know this simple fact, which was included in zero stories about the insurance refunds, you might celebrate this partial adherence to this weak standard. Just like the media does.


Meanwhile, In Afghanistan...

On July 14th the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project released the results of their 2014 poll of thousands of people in 44 countries around the world. It was full of interesting things, but perhaps the most interesting was the section about U.S. drone strikes.

"In 39 of 44 countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities oppose U.S. drone strikes targeting extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Moreover, opposition to drone attacks has increased in many nations since last year. Israel, Kenya and the U.S. are the only nations polled where at least half of the public supports drone strikes."

Israel is in fact the only country in which U.S. drone strikes are more popular than they are in the United States. That's interesting, but even more interesting is how little coverage this major survey got in the U.S. media. In fact, the only national newspaper that covered it at all was USA Today, and their coverage was revealing. The headline was OK—"Global Opposition to U.S. Drone Strikes Grows"—but read the following paragraph from the story very closely:

"The [Obama] administration has carried out strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, often prompting charges in those countries that innocent civilians have been killed."

Well, as the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Media has pointed out in a letter to USA Today, these aren't just "charges" from "those countries." The civilian deaths are well-documented in THIS country, and are well-known around the world. In Pakistan, for example (where support for the strikes is the lowest in the world, according to the survey) the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that somewhere between 416 and 957 civilians have been killed in drone strikes over the past ten years, perhaps 200 of whom were children. Another 64-83 civilians have been killed in Yemen.

In a report just released on July 24th—and, again, ignored in US media—the Bureau reports that "Afghanistan is the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world: the [September 2013] Watapur strike is one of over 1,000 known to have hit the country in the past 13 years. Yet there is no public record of when and where these strikes took place, or who they killed. Strangely, more is understood of the US's secret campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than about how drone use has evolved in Afghanistan."

"Air strikes represent a tiny fraction of the horrendous cost to non-combatants of the violence in Afghanistan – 1%, according to [the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's] latest report. In the first six months of 2014, the report documented over 1,500 civilian deaths, with crossfire from gun battles and roadside bombs the leading causes of death."

The US and its allies routinely deny and/or minimize the reality of civilian suffering from US drones, and US media faithfully reports the denials, which no doubt plays a role in the ongoing support (52 percent) for the drone strikes in this country. And, as the U.S. withdraws its military forces from Afghanistan, the data looks to get even murkier. As the Bureau reports, "Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International, said operations could increasingly rely on the CIA and special forces, which both operate under high levels of secrecy, posing even bigger challenges for those attempting to track casualties."

And now the U.S. is sending special forces into Iraq, to join already-existing CIA forces there.