Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How 'bout those girls? Daughter power in the White House -- Oct. 29, 2015 column


Since Jimmy Carter was mocked for quoting his 13-year-old daughter Amy on nuclear proliferation, presidents have been careful about citing their daughters’ views on issues.

In a debate with Ronald Reagan a week before the 1980 election, President Carter said he’d asked Amy what was the most important issue, and, “She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms.”

Carter intended to use the conversation to personalize the nuke threat and show that it affects all ages, but most commentators hooted. He lost his re-election bid and there was not another daughter in the White House until Chelsea Clinton moved in with her parents in 1993.

Every election since 1992, though, voters have chosen a president with daughters, and the girls influence the dad-in-chief.

“I’ve got two daughters – I care about making sure these streets are safe,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday in Chicago as he called for tougher gun control measures.

When his daughter Malia suffered asthma as a 4-year-old, the experience influenced his views about the environment as well as health insurance, Obama has said. Because the family had good health insurance, “we were able to knock (the asthma) out early.” 
Obama has made climate change and health insurance priorities of his presidency.

Malia is now 17 and Sasha, 14. Dinner table conversations helped change his mind to support same-sex marriage, he said. The girls have friends whose parents are same-sex couples and they could not understand why those parents should be treated differently.

“It doesn’t make sense to them, and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective,” Obama said in a 2012 interview with ABC News.

The White House isn’t the only place where daughters’ opinions count. Academic research is mounting that daughters affect decisions in corporate boardrooms, courtrooms and in Congress.

Companies run by chief executives who have daughters have stronger corporate social responsibility ratings and spend more of their net income on corporate social responsibility than do companies whose CEOs have sons, the November issue of Harvard Business Review reports. 

For example, companies led by CEOs with daughters do more about and spend more on workforce diversity, employee relations and environmental stewardship, Henrik Cronqvist of the University of Miami and Frank Yu of China Europe International Business School found.

An earlier study found that when a member of Congress has a daughter, the representative is more likely to vote liberally, particularly on reproductive rights.

“Such a voting pattern does not seem to be explained away by constituency preferences, suggesting that not only does parenting affect preferences, but also that personal preferences affect legislative behavior,” Yale economist Ebonya Washington wrote in a 2007 paper.

After her landmark work, researchers studied the “daughters effect” on federal appeals court judges.

“Judges with daughters consistently vote in a more feminist fashion on gender issues than judges who have only sons,” Adam N. Glynn of Emory University and Maya Sen of Harvard University, wrote in an article published in January in American Journal of Political Science. Male Republican judges seem to be driving the trend, they said.

None of the studies looked closely at whether the gender of the CEO, judge or member of Congress matters more than that of his or her children, although researchers suspect it does.

After 22 years with First Daughters, voters next November will decide whether to extend or end girls’ long run in the White House.

Among the 2016 Republican presidential contenders, Donald Trump has two daughters and three sons ranging in age from 37 to 9. Marco Rubio has two daughters and two sons, while John Kasich has twin daughters,and Ted Cruz has two little girls.
Ben Carson has sons, and Jeb Bush has two sons and a daughter, all of them grown.

Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s daughter has a daughter, while Martin O’Malley has two daughters and two sons. Bernie Sanders has a grown son.

In 2012, you may recall, voters rejected Republican Mitt Romney, who has five sons and no daughters. Coincidence, you say? Sure.  But presidential candidates with daughters do have a good track record.

You likely won’t hear any of the candidates quoting their teenage daughters on nuclear arms this campaign season, but watch for the effect of daughter power if a candidate with girls is elected.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

NOTE: An earlier version said Jeb Bush had only sons. This has been corrected to include a daughter. 


Thursday, October 22, 2015

What would Ike want? His farm provides hints -- Oct. 22, 2015 column


At home on their farm in Pennsylvania, Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower and his wife Mamie, like millions of other Americans in the 1960s, ate their supper on TV trays, watching Walter Cronkite.

Ike painted in oils, practiced his golf swing and read. Mamie devotedly watched soap operas.

With nearly all the original furnishings still in place, their home tells us that the Eisenhowers had modest tastes and traditional values. There are many framed family photos and knickknacks Mamie collected. But there’s no glory wall of pictures of Ike with kings and potentates, no medals, no political paraphernalia.

Ike was a five-star general, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II and a two-term president from 1953 to 1961, but he hated self-glorification and showing off.
The Eisenhowers donated their farm adjacent to the Gettysburg Battlefield to the National Park Service, which opened it to the public in 1980 as the Eisenhower National Historic Site, a fitting memorial to the 34th president.

It should be obvious that a memorial to Eisenhower in the nation’s capital should also reflect his values, but nothing is simple in Washington. 

Congress approved a memorial in 1999, three decades after Ike’s death, and about $65 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent so far on a design, Eisenhower Memorial Commission staff and K Street offices, and other costs. The total pricetag is $142 million.

The first spade of dirt has still not been turned – fortunately. That means there’s still time to get the memorial right.

On the 125th anniversary of Ike’s birth – he was born Oct. 14, 1890 – Congress should stand with critics, including the Eisenhower family, who find the memorial designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry too grandiose and expensive.

“I think what the critics want is a memorial that’s reflective of Ike’s humility and modesty – and that is not Frank Gehry’s four-acre behemoth,” Bruce Cole, an art historian and a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission appointed by President Obama, said in an interview.

“I would like to see a fitting and proper memorial,” Cole said.

I agree, especially after visiting the Eisenhower Farm a few days ago.

Gehry’s latest design has a seven-story stainless steel screen or “tapestry” as a backdrop to two sets of bronze sculptures in front of huge stone blocks, topped by quotations. The location is an urban park adjacent to the Education Department and other federal office buildings at the foot of Capitol Hill, off the National Mall.
Because of the design controversy, Congress has not approved construction money for the memorial since 2012. The Senate Appropriations Committee, citing “significant unresolved issues,” approved just $1 million for the project for the next fiscal year, the same as last year. The House Appropriations Committee zeroed out all funding and urged a “reset,” a new design that meets the approval of the Eisenhower family.

Ike’s son John S. D. Eisenhower asked in 2012 that the commission scrap the Gehry design and build instead on Eisenhower Square, “a green, open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations.” He died in 2013, and Ike’s grandchildren have been lobbying Congress for a more respectful memorial.

Former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, 92, who was wounded in World War II, said last month that he will raise $150 million in private funds to build the memorial.

“This is not being built for the grandchildren,” Dole told The New York Times. “The voice that hasn’t been listened to is us guys for whom Ike was our hero, and we’d like to be around for the dedication.”

Only about one million World War II vets are still with us and fewer Americans every year remember Ike. Last year, 58,240 people visited the Eisenhower Farm, down from 182,387 visitors in 1981.

Dole raised $170 million for the World War II Memorial, but Eisenhower Commission member Cole predicts that “it’s going to be extremely difficult to raise money for the Gehry design, which has been so controversial and toxic since it was unveiled.”

The Eisenhower Memorial should be appropriate for Ike, restrained and dignified. It’s time for a reset.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On sorting out the possible impact of insurance mergers -- from

SOURCE: Schaeffer Center at the University of Southern California --

Health policy expert weighs in on insurance mergers at Senate hearing

USC Price public policy director Paul Ginsburg aims to broaden the discussion, thinking of ways to make insurance markets more competitive

U.S. Senate panel
A U.S. Senate panel convenes on health insurance mergers in Washington, D.C. (Photo/Paul Morigi)
Testifying before a U.S. Senate panel, USC health policy expert Paul Ginsburg said that health insurance mega-mergers such as those sought by Aetna and Anthem are extremely complex, difficult to analyze and could cost consumers.
Ginsburg spoke before lawmakers from the Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Sept. 22. Joining Ginsburg as witnesses were Mark Bertolini, chairman and CEO of Aetna Inc.; Joseph Swedish, president and CEO of Anthem Inc.; Leemore Dafny, research professor in hospital and health services at Northwestern University; Richard Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospitals Association; and George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union.

Will consumers save?

For more than two decades, Ginsburg has studied how changes in the financing and delivery of health care affect people. Explaining why the health insurance market is so complex, he said insurers sell to different market segments, including individuals, Medicare beneficiaries and national corporations — in many distinct geographic areas. Additionally, the companies act as intermediaries, buying from health providers and selling insurance to consumers.
Ginsburg acknowledged potential upsides.
“For one, Wall Street analysts believe that these mergers will lead to substantial reductions in administrative costs,” he said.
But will consumers see those savings in their premiums?
Paul Ginsburg testifies
Paul Ginsburg, center, testifies at a Senate hearing. (Photo/Paul Morigi)
“We may believe that a merger will lower prices paid to providers, but we then need to analyze whether fees will be passed on to those buying insurance,” he said.
Chief executives of the insurance companies assured the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee that consumers will win from the proposed mergers.
“Better health insurance to more people,” said Swedish, whose company Anthem wants to acquire Cigna for $48 billion.
He and Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, which has agreed to buy Humana and its huge Medicare Advantage business for $37 billion, insisted that fewer, bigger insurance companies will expand competition, improve health care and lower prices.
When asked to assess the Affordable Care Act’s impact on the mergers, Ginsburg said the provisions that do come into play “should be seen in a positive light,” even if they contribute to the urge to merge. The ACA encourages insurers to become more efficient and spurs experimentation in methods of payment, moving away from the traditional fee-for-service model.
Ginsburg is director of public policy at the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and is holder of the Norman Topping Chair in Medicine and Public Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy. An economist, he founded the Center for Studying Health System Change and served as president from 1995 to 2013.

The ultimate arbiter

The Department of Justice — not Congress — ultimately will decide whether to allow the insurance deals. It will conduct a detailed analysis of the possible effects of the mergers and may require the firms to divest some operations, as Anthem had to do in 2012 before buying Amerigroup. The department holds this data private.
“Without being privy to this analysis, I do not have a position concerning whether or not these mergers should be approved,” Ginsburg said. He and Dafny both said they wished the data would be made public.
Given the significance of the insurance sector to our wallets and to the functioning of our health care system, the public deserves better data.
Leemore Dafny
“Given the significance of the insurance sector to our wallets and to the functioning of our health care system, the public deserves better data,” Dafny said.
The antitrust subcommittee rarely tackles health issues, but subcommittee chairman Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he called the hearing to help the public and lawmakers understand the consolidation trend in the health care industry and how it may affect consumers.

Steep stakes

How the mergers may affect the 90 million people — three out of 10 Americans — who have insurance through the four companies was on the mind of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee.
“I want to make sure that these deals do not harm consumers by increasing premiums or reducing benefits,” she said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he’s “deeply concerned about these mergers.”
Slover also noted that stakes for consumers are high.
“There are strong indicators, to us, that these mergers could create too much concentration in too many markets and cause too much harm to consumer choice,” Slover said.
Pollack said the mergers “could be a blow to millions of health consumers, as well as the hospitals, doctors and others who are working to improve quality and efficiency while making care more affordable to patients.”
For Ginsburg, who has testified as an expert witness at dozens of Congressional hearings over the last 35 years, the morning policy discussion was a departure from the contentious political tone of other hearings on Capitol Hill.
“My main message was trying to broaden the discussion — to think not only about consolidation or these mergers but ways to make insurance markets more competitive and how to pursue alternative payment models,” he said after the hearing.

State fairs aren't just about butter cows anymore -- on Stateline

SOURCE Stateline, the online news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts :

State Fairs: Beyond Butter Sculptures to Drones and Yoga

  • October 16, 2015 
  • By Marsha Mercer
Crown© The Associated Press/The Star Tribune, Brian Mark Peterson
A sculptor works in the butter cooler at the Minnesota State Fair. To remain relevant, many states are adding drones, virtual reality attractions and craft beers to traditional agricultural offerings.
The Butter Cow, a life-size statue carved of pure cream Iowa butter, has drawn fans to the Iowa State Fair for more than a century. The 600-pound bovine packs enough butter for more than 19,000 slices of toast, and would take the average person two lifetimes to eat.
But 21st century fair goers expect something more: In addition to the cow and other traditional agricultural attractions, this year’s fair featured yoga and Zumba, craft beers and gluten-free corndogs.
To remain relevant, state fairs across the country — the latest ones will conclude this month — are going modern.
The California State Fair, for example, hosted the first U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, with 120 pilots competing for $25,000 in prizes. The drone races thrilled spectators, but they also showcased technology that can be used to monitor moisture and temperature in vineyards, track cattle and dust crops.
This year’s California fair also featured Tech Trek, an exhibit exploring how science fiction becomes science fact, with 3-D printing and robots. Also for the first time: an official fair chef. Keith Breedlove, a tattooed urban hipster and food truck entrepreneur, demonstrated cooking techniques.
In Washington, D.C., where cultivation of marijuana is now legal, the D.C. State Fair sponsored its first “Best Bud” competition, while the Indiana State Fair encouraged fairgoers to take and post a #farmerselfie with a different farm family every day of the fair. The New Mexico State Fair capitalized on the craft beer craze with an official New Mexico State Fair Beer. Organizers promoted the “tasty, cream ale” as “perfect for washing down fried foods from one of the many food vendors!”
“Two types of people come to our fair,” said Gary Slater, Iowa State Fair CEO. “Half don’t want us to change a thing, year after year. The other 50 percent say, ‘Been there, done that. Wow me somehow this year — or I won’t be back.’”

European Roots

Fairs seem quintessentially American, but settlers brought them from Europe and England. The York, Pennsylvania, fair celebrated its 250th anniversary this year. New York claims the first state fair, in 1841. About 150 million people go to fairs in the United States annually, said Jim Tucker, president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.
In some states, the fair attracts more people than any other event. That’s the case in Iowa, where more than 1 million people visit the state fair. The State Fair of Texas, which runs until Sunday, is the nation’s largest with nearly 2.9 million visitors last year. Other livestock shows and expos also draw huge crowds.
But they have changed.
“At one time, they were state fairs and states would pick up the tab,” said Doug Farquhar at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “States more and more lost patience with that payment model,” he said.
Most state fairs now are nonprofits that receive little or no state funds. They rely for their operating budgets on ticket sales, along with corporate sponsorships and revenue from vendors, carnival games and rides. Others receive state funds for capital improvements or for 4-H premiums, cash prizes awarded to young exhibitors in various competitions. A few, such as the Georgia State Fair, are run by for-profit companies.
The Minnesota State Fair, a 12-day, $50 million enterprise, is the nation’s second largest state fair and set an attendance record of more than 1.8 million ticketed visitors in 2014. This year, attendance was slightly less than 1.8 million. A study estimated the fair’s annual economic impact for the Twin Cities is $200 million.
“We don’t get a dime in state money and don’t want it. There are always strings,” said Jerry Hammer, general manager of the Minnesota State Fair “When the fate of an institution depends on political whims, it’s not a good situation.”
The entire extent of state financial support of the Virginia State Fair is $25,000 for 4-H premiums.
“There’s no handout, nor should there be,” said Marlene Pierson-Jolliffe, who oversees the State Fair of Virginia after spending nearly 25 years with the State Fair of West Virginia.
“Fairs have had to decide to apply solid business principles, get creative and aggressive,” she said. “It’s a tough business.”

Showcasing Products

But even as fairs have updated their attractions, their main mission has remained the same: showcasing state products, especially agricultural products. “At state fairs, among other things you meet the people who are feeding you,” said Minnesota’s Hammer. “That’s a good thing.”
This month’s North Carolina State Fair will showcase some of the state’s 160 wineries and 525 commercial grape growers with a State Fair Wine Competition. Winners will be displayed in the Education Building and North Carolina wines will be sold during the fair.   
At the Kentucky State Fair in August, amateur chefs entered their bourbon-laced entrees, soups, stews, barbecues and casseroles in the Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey cooking contest. Top prize was $250 and the honor of being included in the company’s “Cooking with Bourbon” recipe booklet. 
Six New England state fairs are held together at the Big E (for “Exposition”) in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Each state builds a replica of its original statehouse where it exhibits and promotes state products.
This year, Big E attendees munched on Maine baked potatoes, sampled Vermont cheddar and sipped New Hampshire apple cider.
With less than 2 percent of Americans involved in farming, state fairs want to educate attendees about where food comes from.
“Our greatest challenge is to be relevant,” said Pierson-Jolliffe of Virginia. “Our ag education piece sets us apart from just going to a carnival in a parking lot.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

`The Martian' reminds that we're stuck on Earth -- Oct. 15, 2015 column


To escape our earthly troubles, Americans are going to the movies to see plucky fictional astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, struggle with problems that are, well, out of this world.

A box office bonanza for all the right reasons, “The Martian” is an entertaining adventure film that’s funny and thought-provoking.  No matter how bad our days are, we’ve never been left for dead by our colleagues on a hostile planet millions of miles from Earth. 

To set the stage: Watney gets stranded when a storm prompts the crew to make an emergency departure for Earth. He’s the only human and the only living creature on the entire planet. His supply of astronaut food will last only a couple of months, but a rescue, if it comes at all, will take years. To survive, he needs air, water and food in a barren world – and therein lies a tale.

The story is futuristic science fiction, but the movie bathes us in 1950s’ sensibilities. Wearing our 3D glasses, we bask in the glow of pride for Watney’s relentless determination and can-do spirit. He never falls into self-pity or depression.

“I’m going to have to science the (bleep) out of this,” he says cheerfully, in one of the movie’s most-quoted lines.  

With so much going wrong, just about the only thing he complains about is the disco music the mission’s commander left behind.  Oh, and when he runs out of ketchup. What a great American.
“The Martian” sends the message that smart is cool. Working hard is cool. Never giving up is not only cool but a matter of life and death. When was a botanist a cinematic hero -- or growing potatoes a major feat?

As we root for Watney and his ingenuity, we admire the dedication of his fellow crew members and NASA’s tireless staff. The country and the world rally around him. In the movie version of America, people work together, united in a cause greater than themselves. Even China wants to be helpful.

The real-life story of the novel on which the movie is based could itself be a movie. Software engineer Andy Weir wrote “The Martian” as a serial in 2009, posting the novel chapter by chapter on his blog. Readers asked for the book in one piece, and he put it on Amazon for 99 cents. It became a cult classic, Random House approached and “The Martian” hit the bestseller lists. Hollywood came calling. Fairy tales can come true.

Reports of salty water on Mars stir our imaginations, and “The Martian” could help NASA gin up support for a Mars mission in an era of flat budgets. When we sent a man to the moon in the 1960s, NASA’s budget peaked at 4.5 percent of federal spending; it’s less than half of 1 percent now.

Without more money, the Mars mission is grounded. The Obama administration is working on a Space Launch System and Orion manned crew vehicle, but NASA’s latest “Journey to Mars” report released Oct. 8 contained no budget, schedule or deadlines.

“It’s just some real pretty photographs and some nice words,” complained Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., chairman of the House Science Committee at a hearing. “A journey to nowhere,” he said.
While there is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for deep-space exploration, presidents come with different visions. President George W. Bush called for a lunar mission by 2020 leading to a trip to Mars. Barack Obama dropped the moon mission when it fell behind schedule in favor of an asteroid mission first, pushing back a crewed mission to orbit Mars to the mid-2030s.

In 1962, at the dawn of the Space Age, President John F. Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”

The atmosphere in Washington is too political and too toxic to expect much of anything soon. But the next president should galvanize the public and Congress behind the robust goal of a crewed mission to Mars with a date, budget and deadlines.

The space program has been a technological and emotional boon for generations of Americans and can be again. 

We need the shared national purpose and pride of reaching for the stars in real life – and not just at the movies.

 (C) Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Serving uncertainty: Pass the salt?


Hello, whole milk, my old friend. Welcome back, eggs. Where you been, salt?  

The federal government is about to write new nutritional guidelines aimed at keeping Americans healthy. Whole milk soon may be back in our good graces, along with eggs and even salt. Unless they’re not.   

No wonder people are confused and peeved, if not angry.

The last thing anyone wants in nutrition rules is uncertainty. Why waste precious time deciding whether to buy a can of chicken noodle soup based on its milligrams of sodium if the science now says sodium is not a big deal? Our knowledge of  nutrition and health is constantly changing.

A headline on the front page of Wednesday’s Washington Post read: “A thinning case that fat causes heart ills – New studies vindicate whole milk as dietary advice is revised.” Uh-oh.    

We’ve been told for decades to substitute low- and non-fat milk for whole milk to prevent heart disease and other health problems. It turns out that whole milk may contribute less to heart trouble than the low-fat foods loaded with refined grains and sugar that we substitute for it.   

In other words, cookies and cakes, even the low-fat variety, are no solution.

Researchers found that people who included more milk fat in their diets actually suffered lower levels of heart disease than those who consumed less. And, no, the studies were not paid for by the dairy industry.

Cholesterol also isn’t the problem we once thought, so eggs, red meat and shrimp may no longer set off alarm sirens. We eat too much salt, but it may not be the culprit it seemed. And on top of all that, one study found that breakfast may not be the most important meal of the day.   

Naturally, people are frustrated. It’s tempting to throw federal Dietary Guidelines out with the skim milk.

“People may be losing confidence in the guidelines,” Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said Wednesday at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, adding that many of his constituents “don’t believe this stuff anymore. 

"They’re “flat out ignoring this stuff,” he said.

“Given the public’s skepticism, we should maybe reconsider why we are doing this,” Peterson said.

We are doing this because Congress in 1990 required that federal dietary guidelines be issued at least every five years. The guidelines set policy for everything from school lunches and other federal food programs to advice to individuals about what to eat to prevent such chronic conditions as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity.

Dietary Guidelines 2015 are due to be released by the end of the year.

An independent advisory committee that is helping the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture prepare the 2015 guidelines issued a massive report with several controversial recommendations. During the public comment period, about 29,000 comments were submitted – vastly more than five years ago.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said the committee’s report is not a draft of the new rules, which have not yet been written.

In a blog post this week previewing the new guidelines, Vilsack and Burwell said the new rules will look a lot like the old.  

“Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats and other proteins and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle,” they said.  

Two recommendations by the advisory committee are definitely out. There will be no sustainability goals and no tax on sugary soft drinks, Vilsack and Burwell said. Sustainability refers to the environmental impact of food production. Meat and other producers that require a lot of water lobbied heavily against including sustainability in the guidelines. Soft-drink companies rallied against the tax.

Critics still will complain that the federal government shouldn’t tell us what to eat. Republicans criticize the “food police” as vociferously as health advocates complain about subsidies to sugar and corn. Conservatives want the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Board to review the guidelines before they’re released to the public. That could delay the process.

So, what should you do if you’re fed up with the government’s changing recommendations about good nutrition? The most practical advice may be: Get used to it. And, to be on the safe side, put the salt away.  

(C) 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.