“Wisely invested”

PARK CITY, Utah — Mitt Romney’s campaign held its daily strategy session Saturday 2,076 miles from its Boston headquarters. And this time it had some very special guests.

Eight hundred top donors gathered in the ballroom of a resort here to watch the presentation: the Romney campaign for president is organized, efficient and run like a business. In other words, their money is being wisely invested.

Figuratively or literally.

Yelp! for health care

Sarah Kliff has a post about a new start-up that’s devoted to promoting consumer awareness about health care packages (via). Castlight Health will basically serve as an aggregator for news and prices of health care packages, much in the same way that Yelp! is now a go-to for people who want to learn more about businesses. Here’s how, ideally, it’ll be useful:

The idea of comparison shopping is a relatively simple one; it’s something we do all the time. But in health care, there’s traditionally been little place for it. Health insurance plans have traditionally assessed a flat co-pay for a specific health care service, like a colonoscopy or annual physical. The prices, from the consumers perspective, are all identical.

A flat co-pay, however, can mask huge variation in what doctors charge insurance companies. In California, for example, doctors bill anywhere between $1,529 and $186,955 for an appendectomy.

In recent years, health insurance has evolved to give subscribers more reason to care about what doctors bill. With premiums skyrocketing, employers have increasingly turned to Health Savings Accounts. Under those arrangements, employees are given a “defined contribution” — a set amount their employer will pay for health care. That’s different from a traditional, “defined benefit” plan, where employers cover a specific range of benefits, regardless of cost.

HSAs are generally paired with a high-deductible health plan, meant to provide stop-gap coverage for individuals who end up requiring especially high amounts of health care.

In a defined contribution plan, employees have a huge reason to find the doctor who charges $1,529 for an appendectomy — namely, that bill will be drawn directly from their Health Savings Account.

That’s also where Castlight comes in.

No word in the piece about whether Castlight will have product reviews, a la Yelp!, and I’m sure there are a gazillion ways this can go terribly wrong. Still, intriguing idea.

Mediacentrism

My thoughts return to the PR blogosphere and its substantive commentary (or lack thereof) on political matters. I think I have found a serviceable, though imperfect, analogy to sum up my beef.

Brian Solis, who is generally acknowledged to be a leading writer in ‘big think’ PR pieces and an overall pretty sharp guy, writes a lot of stuff on the intersection of business, the ever-evolving digital age and how that affects organizations. I was not a huge fan of his writing early on but the more that I’ve read, the more it’s grown on me.

One of Brian’s pet points, and one that I’ve seen him make several times in writing, is that often people focus on digital media and social platforms as ends in and of themselves rather than a tactics that fit into a preexisting business model and organizational ethos. Now, if you made it past the embarrassing number of buzzwords in that last sentence, here’s what I’m getting at:

Brands and their marketers suffer from what I refer to as medium’alsim, a condition where inordinate value and weight is placed on the technology of any medium rather than amplifying platform strengths and ideas to deliver desired and beneficial experiences and outcomes.  Said another way, businesses are developing for the sake of development and establishing supporting presences without regard for how someone feels, thinks, or acts as a result. In doing so, “engagement” programs are calculated, brought to life in the form of an editorial calendar that, by its very nature, isn’t not designed to really engage people at all.

Emphasis mine. I misremembered the term he cam up with, which caused me to waste a good ten minutes on Google searching for a combination of ‘Brian Solis’ and ‘mediacentrism’, failing at that, cursing at Google and then even considering using Bing. But no matter. My moniker is ‘mediacentrism.’ It’s the exact same idea and, I have now realized, it’s one of my chief complaints about how PR types write about politics online, if they do write about it at all.

So often, political posts are focused on the delivery mechanism. Here’s a post from Dan Zarrella about how the leading GOP contenders’ Twitter stats. Here’s a David Meerman Scott post about how Obama’s video is a great example of content marketing. Here’s an InkHouse post about the optics early on in the primary process. Etc, etc.

Again, I stress, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with these posts. They can be interesting. I’m aware that it’s not the job of PR folks to analyze policy. I’m aware that much of their professional work does concern image-managing, so this emphasis makes enough sense. But, nevertheless, I think there’s a lost opportunity to look at the way information is disseminated and rejected received. Plus, let’s not kid ourselves: Jeff Zeleny and Ashley Parker spend almost all of their time writing about trivial, optical stuff. PR people could look elsewhere. And yes, because I am ever the thoughtful and substantive blogger, I’ll give you an example.

Greg Sargent had an interesting post a few days ago. An NYT/CBS poll asked about tax fairness in the context of growth, to steal Greg’s wording, and here’s what happened:

Which do you think is the best way to promote economic growth in the U.S.? 1.Lower taxes on individuals and businesses, and pay for those tax cuts by spending on some government services and programs, or 2. Spend more on education and the nation’s infrastructure, and raise taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for that spending.

Lower taxes, cut spending: 37

Spend more, raise taxes: 56

And here are a few more figures:

The poll also finds that 67 percent say the government should do more to help improve the situation of middle class Americans; 52 percent say government shold [sic] do more to improve the housing market; 57 percent think the wealthy pay less than their fair share in taxes; and that 51 percent think capital gains should be taxed as ordinary income. People say they dislike government in the abstract, but when the talk turns to specifics, suddenly active government doesn’t look so bad.

Emphasis all his. And wow. Sounds like good news for the Preznit, eh? Except there’s also this:

But a whopping 55 percent are confident in Romney’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. If Romney clears the basic competence threshold with voters, as seems likely, it could be trouble for Obama.

Waitwaitwait. The public supports, by twenty points, raising taxes on the wealthy and spending more (Obama’s plan) as opposed to cutting spending and lowering taxes (Romney’s plan). 67% say the government should do more to help middle class families, which Romney’s economic plan will not do (see previous link). 52% say government should do more to improve the housing market, an area in which Obama has been quite poor but it stands to reason that Romney would be worse. And 51% think that capital gains should be treated as income, a change which the Buffet rule would mostly accomplish. Romney, if you haven’t been up on it, does not support the Buffet rule.

So: the general public opposes Romney’s general economic plan by 20%. On each discrete issue, the public is more aligned with Obama’s policies than those of Romney. And… wait for it… 55% of Americans claim to be confident about Romney’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. Now, that’s interesting.

Ain’t Talkin’

This post has been turning around in my head for a while now and only really came about a few nights ago, after I had read the Carone piece and spent two hours trying to fall asleep.

Several weeks back, David Meerman Scott wrote a blog post about President Obama ‘newsjacking’ the results of Super Tuesday:

President Obama and his advisors’ choice to answer journalists’ questions on Super Tuesday, when voters in ten U.S. states vote in the Republican Presidential Primaries (arguably the most important date of the entire primary season) is a classic example of political newsjacking.

Watch the news conference on WhiteHouse.gov.

So in today’s online news stories, this evening’s television and radio broadcasts, and tomorrow’s newspapers, the Republican Super Tuesday winner(s) need to share the top story with the President.

The president has engaged in newsjacking before. For example: President Obama Newsjacks Iowa Caucus by joining Instagram.

What struck me about this was the focus of the post. Like many people in the PR/marketing biz, Scott’s post zones in on a similarity between politics and PR: the president can ‘newsjack’ (the titular subject of Scott’s latest book) and so can you! The post is about the overlap between public relations and politics, two disciplines that do share much in common.

This sort of analysis (applying PR principles to politicking) is endemic in the PR/marketing online conversation (another example of Scott citing similarities here). There’s nothing wrong with it. But to me, and this is why I reacted with such interest, it’s boring. We all know that politicians have different publics, have to cater their messaging to various constituencies, should embrace transparency to the degree they can, will use the same tactics used by marketers, yadda yadda.  It’s not the similarities that are interesting. It’s the differences.

I’ve harped on this before, but what makes politics such a fascinating departure from ‘typical’ PR is that people don’t receive and process information the same way. In fact, it’s not even close. Take, for example, a consumer PR crisis. Remember when Mattel had to recall a bunch of toys because they contained or might’ve contained lead paint, which is very much not good for the babies? People were understandably pissed, Mattel’s reputation took a hit and late-night comedians had half their jokes written for the next two weeks.

But that reaction was a universal reaction. Pretty much everyone looked up from their porn morning paper and went, “Wow. That’s no good.” And that was that. Consumer product safety is not something that’s bisected or fragmented by religion or tribalism or whatever.

Contrast our consumer PR example with the storied (and still ongoing!) saga about our current president’s place of birth. Now here, we have a situation in which there is, let’s be charitable, substantial evidence that Barack Obama was indeed born in Hawaii. And yet.. in 2011, a majority of Republican voters claimed that they either did not know or did not believe whether/that the Preznit was born in these here United States. And no, I am not willing to grant these folks a possible David Hume-like philosophical ignorance about the nature of certainty and whether any of us really know anything and that it’s possible that the illusory nature of the sen.. No.

Or what, we might ask, of a certain political party whose economic agenda, for the past 30 years or so, has been premised on the idea of tax cuts increasing revenue when that idea is demonstrably false? That economic ‘theory‘ remains an article of faith to this day.

On more than a few levels, I can understand why PR folks, especially established ones, are disinclined to ponder this sort of stuff in public. The subject matter basically demands a PoFlaWa. I’m sure many of the people whom I read have clients whose opinions differ from mine. Hell, there are probably more than few marketing types out there who are just seething at how the Socialist-in-Chief is destroying Murka. People tend to tread lightly around politics and I understand why. It’s not easy to argue.

To (almost) close, I’ll just say this: I find this sort of stuff, from both a persuasion and political science perspective, so damn interesting. Marketing, in my own estimation and that of people who are much more successful and respected than I am, is changing. From an interview with Douglas Rushkoff (via):

What will marketing organizations look like in the future?

It will be companies that figure out how to communicate the non-fiction story of a company, so it’s going to look a lot more like a communications company than a creative branding agency. It’s going to look a little bit more like PR, in some sense. It’s going to be people who go and figure out what does your company do and how do we let the world know about that? There’s going to be a lot of psychology involved, except instead of it being psychologists turned against the consumer, it’s going to be psychologists going in and trying to convince companies that what they’re doing is worthy. It’s breaking down this false need in companies to hide from the public what they’re doing–except for the ones that do (need to hide).

Couldn’t agree more. With more forced transparency, faster relay of information and a greater capacity for people to make their voices heard, bullshitting people is increasingly harder for companies. And yet… in our political discourse, bullshit not only still persists, it dominates. I find this fascinating. But no one, at least no one that I’ve come across in my time reading marketing and PR blogs, says a peep about this. I’m not expecting them to line up alongside me on Team Lefty, although from reading much of the content, it’s difficult to feel that many PR folks don’t lean that way (and some, to their credit, claim the mantle). I am somewhat surprised, though, that this isn’t frequent fodder for thoughts on how politics perverts straightforward persuasion.

Because you have one of our two main political parties, and even more so their most dedicated followers, believing things that are at odds with a wealth of evidence (start here, here and here).

Why do they believe this? Or why do they claim to believe this? Well… that’s a very interesting question, innit? It’s something that I wrote about by hand when I traveled*. I hope to have the time in the next few weeks to transcribe my thoughts on such things, despite the fact that famous people have publicly preempted me.

*If you ever go to New Caledonia, make sure you speak French. Or go with someone who speaks French. Or be prepared to sit on the beach and write and read and keep to yourself. Delightful place. Not too many English-speaking folks, though.

So it begins…

My, my, that didn’t take very long. From the front and center article on Politico (no link for them):

American politics has become so angry and divisive that it favors candidates who appeal to extremists and eccentrics, and even are extremist and eccentric themselves.

The nonstop circus of modern campaigns, meanwhile, has left the county’s most accomplished and capable people on the sidelines, with scant interest in running for office.

Or so the argument goes.

But something strange—or rather something normal—is happening in 2012.

One of the most familiar refrains from this age of polarization—that rhetorical bombast and ideological zealotry are what carry politicians to the top—is running headlong into the reality of Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney.

The general election will pit one exceptionally self-contained, self-disciplined, self-motivated man against another with precisely the same traits.

Voters have a choice between two men whose minds gravitate to rationality and logic—both of whom have expressed disdain for the disorder and surliness that pervade modern governance.

Sigh. Yeah, because it’s not like Mitt Romney has embraced right-wing views on immigration or tax policy or social safety net policies or foreign policy or… you get the point.

Meanwhile, that radical in the White House is proposing to raise the top marginal tax rate by… 4%… and that top rate is the lowest it’s been since the 1930s (first few Reagan years excepted).

Gonna be a looooong six months, folks…

Different century, same story

This item via Kevin Drum caught my eye. Tells the story of Hammer v Dagenhart, an early 20th century case that went to the Supreme Court:

The parallels between the child labor issue and the health care issue are remarkable. In both cases, the legislation in question was the product of a decades-long struggle….Only the federal government could address the issue, since no state would act on its own….Both then and now, challengers to the statutes had to propose that the Supreme Court invent new constitutional rules in order to strike them down. At the time it considered the issue in 1918, there was nothing in the Supreme Court’s case law that suggested any limit on Congress’s authority over what crossed state lines. On the contrary, the Court had upheld bans on interstate transportation of lottery tickets, contaminated food and drugs, prostitutes, and alcoholic beverages.

That’s why the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the law in 1918 astounded even those who had most strenuously opposed enactment. Hammer v. Dagenhart declared — in tones reminiscent of the Broccoli Objection to Obamacare — that if it upheld the law “all freedom of commerce will be at an end, and the power of the States over local matters may be eliminated, and, thus, our system of government be practically destroyed.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, dissenting, wondered how it could make sense for congressional regulation to be “permissible as against strong drink but not as against the product of ruined lives.” The Court responded that unlike all the contraband that it had permitted Congress to block, the products of child labor “are of themselves harmless.” This meant a completely novel constitutional doctrine: The Court took unto itself the power to decide which harms Congress was permitted to consider when it regulated commerce.

As Drum notes, bears some resemblance to the health care issue that the Supreme Court just decided, doesn’t it?

That reminded me of a book I read which discusses the political factions and their clashes right after the U.S. was founded. Lotsa stuff about Jefferson and Hamilton. One of the things that truly amused me was the rhetoric that the two sides used. Democratic Republicans decried the Federalists ‘monarchists’ while the Federalists slimed the Jeffersonians as ‘Jacobins.’ Now, ‘monarchist’ doesn’t have much of a contemporary, but the way that Hamilton’s crew threw around ‘Jacobin’ is pretty much exactly how wingers use the term ‘socialist’ today. Some 200 some odd years later, the rhetoric hasn’t changed a whit.

Or, for a more recent example, look at the political rhetoric during the 1930s and 40s. Business leaders from then could fit right in with our butthurt Galtian Overlords of today, railing about FDR’s socialism and communism and lack of deference. Times may change, but people, and the arguments they use, really don’t.