Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Updates: Wellmark, Sicko, Gambling & Conference

July 12, 2007, 6:00 a.m.

July 11, 2007, 7:00, 8:00 a.m. (See "Reason Rules," and "Marcus Theatres/Sicko," below, for today's mini-essays)

July 10, 2007, 7:00 a.m.; 3:50 p.m.

Updates: Wellmark, Sicko, Gambling, Fairness, Sales Tax & Resources Conference

Yesterday [July 9] I said I was going to swear off blogging and get some work done -- primarily for want of any news worthy of commentary. One day later, as if to take up my challenge and prove to me that they can find news related to the subjects tracked by this blog, the papers are full of it again today [July 10]. No lengthy essays from me. But you'll at least want the links to the updates.

Wellmark: "Well then, if you're not going to accept our money we're just not going to give you the money. So there!"

[July 12] Marvin Pomerantz, an exceedingly generous benefactor of the UI and other Iowa institutions and projects, a former Wellmark board member, chair and prime mover of the College of Public Health Capital Campaign Committee, says he is "embarrassed" by the rejection of the Wellmark offer to purchase the name of the College in perpetuity for $15 million.

With respect, I think to the extent there is any embarrassment felt by Pomerantz, lead Wellmark director John Colloton and Wellmark CEO John Forsyth -- all involved in this proposal -- it is an embarrassment of their own making. When Forsyth says, as he has, that Wellmark did not envision that its effort to buy the name of the College "would spawn the negative reaction" that it has it indicates either (1) a lack of prior research and consultation or (2) an arrogant sense of entitlement that Wellmark's money should enable it to buy anything, along with a willingness to steamroller over opposition he knew would be there. It's an embarrassment that they thought of the idea; that they went ahead with it; and that they've reacted with such a petulant "I'm taking my marbles and going home" display. Those are the things that make this fiasco embarrassing. What the College did in rejecting the proposal is in no way embarrassing.

On the other hand, there's something the University does need to address. That's Pomerantz' comment that "we think they [the UI administration and faculty] were making rules up as they went along." I have no way of knowing what happened. I wasn't there. But I wouldn't be surprised if Pomerantz is dead on about that assertion.

As I wrote in Nicholas Johnson, "More on 'The Name Game'" in "Name Game & Other Moral Dilemmas," July 4, 2007:

What's happening, as I see it, is but a tiny sub-set of a much larger, looming challenge that I wrote about in an earlier blog entry. Nicholas Johnson, "Greed, Conflicts, Cover-Ups and Corruption" in "Conflicts, Cover-Ups and Corruption," June 26, 2007.

Our so-called "public universities" (increasingly "private" in terms of operating budgets and escalating tuition and other student expenses) are in a period of transition -- although to what is not altogether clear. I wrote about these alternative futures in a Press-Citizen op ed. Nicholas Johnson, "Where Are We Going? Who's Going With Us?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 19, 2007.
The issue here is not whether corporations and business are "bad." We are surrounded daily with evidence to the contrary provided by everything from the start-ups of our youngest entrepreneurs to our oldest and largest corporations.

The issue is whether we wish to maintain a sanctuary anywhere in our society from the values and pressures of profit maximization -- churches, national parks, what was created to be a "non-commercial" radio service and is now larded with commercials? The academy does seem to be well into a similar transition from a cloistered sanctuary for the free education of students to a corporate-sponsored and administered jobs training program (from which the banks prosper with the interest on the student loans necessary to pay the ever-rising tuition). Because it is a transition we may well be, as Pomerantz suggests, "making rules up" as we go along.

As I discuss in "Conflicts, Cover-Ups and Corruption," linked above, the issues go well beyond the naming of universities, colleges, buildings -- indeed, anything large enough to hold a plaque. I won't repeat here that list of potential issues confronting our new UI President, Sally Mason. But if we are, in fact, making up the rules as we go along I would humbly suggest that we pause a moment to think through with deliberation the issues and the policies that we wish to pursue rather than continue to wander down a road littered with the kind of improvised explosive devices that we've just seen triggered.

(And while we're doing it, the Press-Citizen's thoughtful editorial this morning [July 12] to the contrary notwithstanding, consider the possibility that it does not necessarily follow that a red hot solution to the Wellmark naming controversy would have been to take the money but not name the building -- even if that option had been available, which it never was. It is the taking of the money (in some circumstances, including this one) that creates the conflict of interest. The naming of the building for the corporate donor only advertises one's willingness to engage in such conflicts, one's having finally swapped one's ethics for money after, as Shaw put it, "haggling over price." Editorial, "Wellmark Should Give a True Gift to Health College," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 12, 2007.

And see, Brian Morelli, "Pomerantz resigns from college committee; Former Wellmark director 'embarrassed' by rejection of plan," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 12, 2007, p. A1; Diane Heldt, "Pomerantz Leaves UI Fundraising Committee; Major UI Donor Upset Over Handling of Wellmark Gift Offer," The Gazette, July 12, 2007, p. A1.

[July 11] Rekha Basu, "U of I Shows Healthy Respect for Its Good Name," Des Moines Register, July 11, 2007 ("The University of Iowa's school of public health deserves a great big bouquet of roses for proving that not everything is for sale, especially not its name. . . . The fact is, insurance industry goals can be at odds with public-health ones. (Go see "Sicko" if you have any doubt about that). Promoting public health doesn't always line up well with the profit motive in health care. . . . It's too bad Wellmark can't respect the integrity behind the college's decision and has chosen, instead, to take its marbles and go home. . . . [because] withholding the money says it was essentially looking for an ad buy rather than wanting to make a gift. No one needs reminding of the extent to which corporations already run most facets of American life, from the chain newspaper to the chain restaurant to the sports stadiums and arenas that already trumpet the big names in corporate America.")

Alan Jensen, "Lower insurance premiums better than naming rights, The Gazette, July 11, 2007, p. A4 ("If Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield has $15 million to give the University of Iowa for naming rights, they can most certainly cut our health insurance premiums.")

Brian Morelli, "Wellmark withdraws $15M offer; Official: We will wait for UI community to support naming rights," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 10, 2007

Wellmark executives, still looking for a college where everyone will know their name, have been singing the old "Cheers" theme lyrics: "Sometimes you want to go/Where everybody knows your name,/and they're always glad you came./You wanna be where you can see,/our troubles are all the same/You wanna be where everybody knows/Your name."

"What we've got here is failure to communicate." Two quotes in The Gazette's version of this story tell a lot about the growing gap between the perspective of the academy and that of the corporate world -- a gap that President Sally Mason will confront the moment she sets foot on the Pentacrest.
"traditional and outdated precepts" John Forsyth, CEO, Wellmark, in email to Jim Merchant, Dean, UI College of Public Health: "I would submit that the real challenge for academic leaders like you is to create a mind-set of leading and embracing change . . . over traditional and outdated precepts such as the need to separate academic from commercial interests."

Interim President Gary Fethke: "I regret that the discussion of this generous donation failed to focus on the substantial benefits of corporate partnerships for our students, faculty and staff."
Diane Heldt, "Wellmark Withdraws $15 Million Naming Offer; Insurance Company Says Negative Reaction to Gift Not Envisioned," The Gazette, July 10, 2007, p. A1.

Maria Houser Conzemius, "At This Point it Seems That, 'They're All in it Together,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 10, 2007 (whether presidents live on Church Street in Iowa City, or Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, there seems to be a common expectation from elites regarding their behavior)

Editorial, "Wellmark's Gift Had Too Many Strings Attached,"
The Daily Iowan, July 11, 2007, and Stephen Schmidt, "Wellmark Rescinds $15 Million Offer," The Daily Iowan, July 10, 2007.

Marcus Theaters' "broad commercial appeal" makes Iowa City's residents "Sicko"

The Press-Citizen's editorial page has two items regarding "Sicko" this morning. One is Editorial, "Film's Delay to City Hurts Its Health Care Image," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 11, 2007.

The other presents one of the usual industry attacks on Michael Moore and his film, Brett Skinner, "Canada's 'Sicko' Care," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 11, 2007. Skinner says, for example, "Michael Moore is not interested in . . . facts. He makes fictional films."

For a sample of the kind of point by point by documented point response Moore and his supporters can make to such libelous charges, see "'Sicko Truth Squad Sets CNN Straight," July 10, 2007.

And don't miss James Clay Fuller, "Sicko: Commenting on the Commentaries," Twin Cities Daily Planet, July 10th, 2007 5:26 am ("Apparently there is a rule in corporate journalism that every mention of [Michael] Moore and his films . . . must contain at least two snide observations about his . . . attacks on rich and powerful but somehow –- in the eyes of the corporate journalists -- defenseless people such as the chairman of General Motors, and, if you can slide it in, Moore's physical appearance" -- all from a journalist who says he's never met or communicated with Moore).

If you'd like to watch CNN's slashing, false attack on "Sicko," and Moore's on-camera response (the piece to which the "truth squad's" textual analysis relates), here it is:

Kathryn Fiegen, "Residents Must Wait to See Sicko," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 10, 2007 (theater monopolist executive says, "Marcus Theatres' primary business is to show films with broad commercial appeal." Why does this sound so reminiscent of the instructions a major advertiser once gave the radio networks regarding the programs it sponsored: "There will be no material that may give offense, either directly or by inference, to any commercial organization of any sort"?)

Iowans' Gambling Losses Increase Someone's "Economic Growth" -- Just Not Ours

Rod Boshart, "Casino revenue hits $1.32 billion; New venues fuel 14.9 percent increase in fiscal 2007 figures," The Gazette, July 10, 2007, p. A1.

Fairness Doctrine

Editorial, "Beware of 'Fair' in Talk on the Air,"
The Gazette, July 10, 2007, p. A4.

Reason Rules on Tax Shift Onto Poor: 85% Vote "No" on "Yes to Destiny"

A little-noticed story in last Saturday's Gazette caught my eye. It was a report of a town-meeting-type exchange between Senator Chuck Grassley and some of his West Branch constituents. One asked him, "Would you rescind your authorization of the war?" Another "deplored the inequity of the 15 percent capital gains tax" (reduced from 20%) compared with ordinary income tax rates. A third commented regarding import protections for fertilizer companies -- driving up prices. "It's unfair that farmers are expected to sell their crops on a global market but cannot buy their fertilizer on a global market." Grassley's answers. (1) No. (2) "He defended the lowered tax, saying it expanded the nation's economy . . .." (3) "Grassley took notes." Marlene Lucas, "East Iowans Question War, Taxes; Grassley Defends Policies, Takes Notes," The Gazette, July 7, 2007, p. B2.

This morning's Register reports that, notwithstanding the near-unanimous support of the Des Moines business community's elite, their willingness to put $700,000 of their mouths where their money is, and the overwhelming coverage and editorial support they had from the area's dominant newspaper, the proposal to shift their property taxes to the backs of the sales-tax-paying poor was rejected by 85% of the voters. Jeff Eckhoff and Melissa Walker, "Three counties, one voice: ‘No;’ Only 15% support multipurpose, business-backed levy; Special vote gets unusually high turnout; Ecstatic foes of plan hope lopsided result buries idea for good," Des Moines Register, July 11, 2007

Yesterday (see Morelli's story, linked above within this blog entry) we read Wellmark CEO Forsyth's comment regarding his efforts to put the company's name on the College of Public Health, ""Neither Wellmark BlueCross and BlueShield nor Wellmark Foundation envisioned that their [gift and naming proposal] would spawn the negative reaction that has been reported in news media,' John Forsyth wrote to James Merchant, dean of the College of Public Health on Friday."

UI's athletic program and other administrators were seemingly also taken by surprise earlier at the adverse reaction to the use of the Iowa Fights song and the University's name and setting for an Iowa Lottery television commercial encouraging increased gambling by Iowans.

And so were the board members of the University of Iowa Community Credit Union who were so confident the members would just go along with the new name they enthusiastically accepted from a high-paid corporate consultant, "Optiva," that they didn't think it necessary to check with the members first.

There are two observations I'd make about these stories. (1) The gap between the lives, interests, understandings, concerns and opinions of the wealthy, corporate ruling elites in this country, and those of the 90% of all Americans who suffer at their hands, is growing even faster than the gap in their campaign-contribution-provided incomes and those of the rest of us. (2) There seems to be an upswing in the willingness of the 90% to do something about the uninformed and unfeeling overreaching by those elites. That can only be healthy for America in the long run.

Resources from Resources for Life Conference Now Online

I earlier mentioned "Resources for Life." Presentations at the Resources for Life Conference, held in Iowa City July 7 and 8, are now in streaming audio available here (scroll down to "200707" and then "Resources for Life Conference 07-07-07" and then click on a presenter's name).

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John Barleykorn said...

Suffer at their hands??? Please.

People in Iraq suffer, People in North Korea suffer. Cigarette Smoking-Lottery ticket buying-america is not suffering. Their biggest concern is making sure Mediacom doesn't shut them off. More will be concerned about that than will show up at their local city council meeting or work on a city planning commission.

Project Destiny made a mistake by using the property tax reduction at all. It would have passed if it had just been put into streets and trails as a simple direct plan. I hope that comes back in that form.

Is the Sales Tax fair? What is fair? How is it less regressive than the property tax? It's not. You pay the same levy per $1,000 of value. It's not indexed folks.

John Neff said...

Marvin Pomerantz is annoyed because he found out he was the anti-hero of a shaggy-dog story. I have a slight amount of sympathy for him because a faculty members view of the world is different from that that of ordinary folks.

I think the faculty made the correct choice but ordinary folks would have taken the money. On the other hand we don't want ordinary folks as faculty members.