August 30, 2009


Sam Smith - I've told my doctor that if I get to the point where I can't argue with him anymore, he can pull the plug. I told one of my sons about this and he promptly responded, "What do you mean, Dad? Don't you want me and my brother arguing about you on national TV?"

(In fact, it's not totally a joke. During the one serious operation I've ever had, the doctors gave me extra anesthesia, explaining later that I was talking so much politics that it was distracting them.)

So I come to the end of life issue from the pragmatic side, but I also respect that fact that many wouldn't agree with me. Further, you'll note that it was - at least in my imagination - my choice and not that of the doctors, insurance companies or the government.

And so, unlike many in the Democratic Party and the media, I don't think the issue is some rightwing plot designed to sabotage the healthcare bills.

But how to discuss it rationally? Well, here's a starting point. The Christian Science Monitor notes that in the "British national health service, a government board approves only expensive treatments that add at least the equivalent of one year of quality life for every $50,000 in spending."

In a time when doctors are being told how many minutes they may spend with a patient, it doesn't help to avoid the issue of healthcare rationing.
Although the Democrats deny they are planning "death panels," they are pushing for studies of the "comparative effectiveness" of treatment plans, a perfectly sensible inquiry, but also one that is just a step or two away from the British system. For example, without any direct government intervention at all, a hospital might refuse a treatment based on a recent government comparative effectiveness study.

How one feels about all this is a much better guide to the issue than most of what you will read or hear these days. What is the comparative effectiveness of another year of your life? And who gets to decide?

August 29, 2009


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - It was sad to lose Ted Kennedy, but as I followed the coverage I couldn't help feeling a bit angry as well. It was almost as if the media, rather than helping in the burial, had stolen his body instead. And then those endless encomiums from those who hardly ever thought or voted Kennedy's way. I mentioned them to someone who had worked for Kennedy early on and had stayed close. Her immediate reaction: "Yeah, those shits." It felt good to hear something real again.

Of course, the same thing happens to anyone famous who dies these days. One poll found that 70% thought the coverage of Michael Jackson's death had been overdone. The media has become obsessively vulturic, morbidly circling over the remains of anyone of importance.

But there was something else troubling. Kennedy was a good liberal of the old school, a positive voice in an increasingly misguided land. But he was far from being a leader of progressive politics. To those pushing new ideas he was often an open door into power but he was no Ralph Nader. To the media and most of those establishment figures who dabbed their eyes at his service, he represented the absolute furthest left they would ever honor. He was the last respectable liberal. And they were there to bury him and what he stood for.

Ted Kennedy was no radical but neither was he the enemy of the left. As his voting record indicates, he was often an ally of those far more progressive than himself. And even in his death, he may be once again have done a favor: freeing the space the extremist middle had assigned as exclusively his.

But It won't be long before Wolf Blitzer and his ilk anoint some other acceptable leaders of the left. Unless, of course, the left gets busy, gets loud, and beats them to it.

August 22, 2009


Progressive Review - The health care fight is being posed as a struggle between left and right but the true story is far more complicated. For example, as we have noted, there are a number of excellent provisions in the bills such as banning use of preexisting conditions to deny insurance. These would form the basis of an important health care reform measure - admittedly far short of single payer - but a definite step forward.

Why is no one talking about this modest approach? One reason is that the insurance companies and pharma industry are only going along with such provisions provided they get a huge increase in clients thanks to the requirement that all must buy health policies and thanks to new government subsidies. Without the new business, and the subsidies involved, the insurance corporados would oppose the measures.

Obama tried to keep this all under control with a so-called pubic option but the insurance companies have apparently ditched even that. So now we are left with a bill that provides some definite improvement in healthcare at an extraordinary cost - some paid by the government and some by those required, perhaps unconstitutionally, to purchase private health insurance.

We are talking about a bill so important to the pharmas that they are putting over $200 million into lobbying for a bill most liberals are also supporting with few questions.

Among the reasonable questions: why won't private insurance rates soar just as they have in states that have adopted such an approach?

How we deal with these problems and contradictions is hard to perceive given the craziness of the debate spurred by the bills. Logic can't even get through the door, let alone to the table. But a good place to start is for liberals to recognize the extent they have been conned into a costly alliance with the insurance and drug industries. It's hard to find allies more greedy, selfish and clever than those,.

August 19, 2009


Here are some clues for spotting a conservative. Remember, not all conservatives talk and look like George Bush or Bill O'Reilly. Some conservatives even like to use the word change without telling you what it means. This handy guide may help you discover whether you accidentally voted for one recently.

- Supports Af-Pak war

- Supports leaving a large colonial military force in and around Iraq.

- Spends more money helping big banks than helping people threatened with foreclosures.

- Spends more money bailing out big auto manufacturers than bailing out small business.

- Supports unconstitutional wiretapping by agencies like the NSA

- Supports the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.

- Supports the futile, expensive and deadly war on drugs.

- Supports withholding funds from cities that refuse to privatize some of their public schools.

- Supports preventive detention.

- Supports computerized strip searches of air passengers.

- Wants to overturn long-standing law that stops police from initiating questions unless a defendant's lawyer is present.

- Favors continuation of secret searches of library and bookstore data files

- Supports giving cabinet level powers to numerous 'czars' in an end run around the constitution.

- Opposes prosecuting George Bush and members of his administration for war and other crimes.

August 18, 2009


Sam Smith

While it is certain that single payer - and likely that a public option - will go down to defeat, there remains the question of how progressives should best approach the situation.

While the airwaves and columns of the left are filled with anger, there doesn't seem to be a lot of strategy involved.

For example, the other day I cited a group of little discussed provisions in various bills that would definitely improve healthcare.

Included were an end to denial of coverage for preexisting conditions, an end to discriminatory pricing, a ban on insurance companies canceling policies for any reason other than failure to pay the bill, an end to lifetime or annual caps on benefits, subsidized coverage for the poor, tax credits for small business and lifting the income limits on Medicaid eligibility.

If the showboaters in both parties weren't so obsessed with scoring one major victory, one could imagine a bill that did not do much more than the aforementioned items. It would be a good bill and it would make life better for many Americans.

The insurance companies would hate it, but support for the measure would grow greatly because it would be a true - if modest - reform of the existing system without any of the dubious, extraneous or presumptuous aspects of the bills that have gotten the Democrats in such trouble.

On the other hand, it would fail to provide universal coverage, the initial point of the exercise. Of course, not passing any healthcare bill would suffer the same fault.

The real question, thus, is this: is it better to go down to total defeat or to make a number of improvements even if they seem trivial compared to what one set out to do?

Further, would passing such a modest measure hinder or help the course of single payer? Would it serve as an excuse to forget about the issue for another decade?

(The same questions, incidentally, are worth asking about the so-called public option)

I suspect we won't have to make that decision since even the mild suggestions listed above would probably fail to get significant Democratic support because the party is so beholden to the insurance companies.

What progressive members of Congress can do, however, is to establish a paper trail by proposing amendments that would put politicians on record as to whether they support the interests of the citizens or of the insurance companies. And then use that trail in primary campaigns against the worst sinners in 2010 and 2012, which - the way things are going - might even include the current president.

Obama and the congressional Democrats have made an ungodly mess of this issue. There seems no good way out. But while sticking with single payer is certainly an honorable position, it would also help to find ways to expose the hypocrisy and shame of those who have done it such damage. For example, banning denial of coverage for preexisting conditions is not socialism, it's not some wacky British system and it's not going to kill your grandmother before her time. Making foes of public healthcare vote on just that one issue might help better expose how mean and selfish they really are.

August 15, 2009


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - The health care debate has come down to a struggle between greed and hypocrisy. The Republicans see health as a prerogative of wealth while the Democrats want just about anything they can call reform in the next election and have sold themselves to the insurance companies in the process. The public is clearly left out in this discussion.

Further, the Democrats are hurting themselves even more than usual. They don't understand, for example, that when they label as Nazis their opponents at fake town hall meetings, many other ordinary citizens with doubts about the Obama approach may take that personally. And when they stiff single payer, they are all but shoving progressives out the door.

And some of it doesn't have to do with healthcare. One of the town hall protesters, when interviewed later, seemed mainly concerned about the soaring number of "czars" in the Obama administration. There was a time when Democrats wouldn't think of calling one of their appointees a czar.

At the same time, there is the quality that Neal Cavuto nailed, namely that Obama is approaching this matter like a used car salesman - don't worry about the specifics of the deal, just get the customer to buy into it as fast as possible and don't let them leave the lot before they do.

Then there's the rationing controversy. The Obama crowd acts as though it's all nonsense, when in fact it's a major medical issue that should be openly discussed and not concealed under a cloud of spin. For example, rationing fan Peter Singer wrote in the New Times Magazine, "In the current U.S. debate over health care reform, 'rationing' has become a dirty word. Meeting last month with five governors, President Obama urged them to avoid using the term." Why did Obama have to warn five governors not to refer to an issue that the president claims doesn't even exist? Besides, when you commodify health care you are talking about rationing whether you use the term or not.

Further, hidden just behind the Democrats' current troubles is their assumption that "we can do it better than you can." It's there in all the regulations and controls slowing down the stimulus package; it's there in the extraordinary invasion of local control of public schools; and it's there in the health care effort.

When you don't trust people, they know it. There has been a growing snottiness about non-elite America among the liberal czars and czarinas that is playing a role in the kickback over healthcare.

Michael Lind recently offered an example

[][][] In a recent Washington Post column, Kathleen Parker quoted Ohio Sen. George Voinovich's assertion that the Republican Party is "being taken over by Southerners" to suggest that the GOP risks becoming a permanent minority party of the old Confederacy. In itself this is a legitimate point that I and many other critics of Republican conservatism have made for years. However, at Mother Jones, the blogger Kevin Drum used Parker's political argument as an excuse for all-too-typical liberal Southern-bashing. According to Drum: "There are, needless to say, plenty of individual Southern whites who are wholly admirable. But taken as a whole, Southern white culture is [redacted]. Jim Webb can pretty it up all he wants, but it's a [redacted]." Drum did the redacting on his own blog post, explaining he'd blacked out the offending text "on the advice of my frontal lobe." Drum's creepy bigotry becomes clear when other groups are substituted: "There are, needless to say, plenty of individual blacks who are wholly admirable. But taken as a whole, black culture is [redacted]. Barack Obama can pretty it up all he wants, but it's a [redacted]." [][][]

Finally, the public may not know the figures, but it knows it's not at the table, that something bad is going, something of the sort described by Bloomberg News:

[][][] If there is any doubt that President Obama's plan to overhaul U.S. health care is the hottest topic in Congress, just ask the 3,300 lobbyists who have lined up to work on the issue. "That's six lobbyists for each of the 535 members of the House and Senate, according to Senate records, and three times the number of people registered to lobby on defense. More than 1,500 organizations have health-care lobbyists, and about three more are signing up each day. Every one of the 10 biggest lobbying firms by revenue is involved in an effort that could affect 17 percent of the U.S. economy. [][][]

So here are. We're not going to get single payer. We may not even get a public option. Yet hidden behind all the uproar are a number of reforms that Democrats could pass on their own, or even with GOP help. And if the Republicans try to block the measure because of some of the items, they could be put in a separate bill and passed anyway.

The result would not be the historic, ground-breaking, earth shaking measure that Obama has obsessed over, but a modest measure improving the state of healthcare in America. Here are some existing proposals that might be included, taken from a list compiled by Joshua Holland for Alternet:

[][][] Insurance companies could no longer deny coverage to people because they've had health problems in the past, nor could they charge hugely different rates for different groups of people (premiums could only vary by age, geography, tobacco use and family size).

- The House bill bans the insurance industry's habitual practice of collecting premiums until someone gets sick, and then digging through their histories for an excuse to cancel coverage.

- Insurers wouldn't be allowed to cancel an individual's coverage for reasons other than failing to pay the premium.

- Insurers would no longer be permitted to impose annual or lifetime caps on benefits.

- Insurers that sell insufficient, cheapo plans that leave people vulnerable to medical crises would be required to disclose that fact to their customers.

- All insurers would be required to disclose how much of their spending is on health care and how much goes to costs like overhead, advertising, etc.

- If the House measure passes, individuals would face a maximum of $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses a year, and families no more than $10,000. For poorer families, the limits would be much lower: $500 per year, for example, for a family making less than 1.33 times the poverty rate.

In 2007, Harvard researchers studied thousands of bankruptcy filings and found that medical causes played a role in more than 6 in 10.

- In the House bill, individuals making less than 400 percent of the poverty line -- $43k per year and families earning under $88k -- will be eligible for subsidized coverage on a sliding scale.

- Many small businesses would be eligible for tax credits for insuring their employees.

- All of the plans being considered by Congress make more of the working poor eligible for Medicaid by lifting the income limits on eligibility. [][][]

There you have it. A bill that could be passed in September filled with good things most of which you probably haven't even heard mentioned in the debate, thanks to all the bipartisan showboating. And the only thing odd about this is that it is a compromise being proposed by progressive populist and not by those who yammer all the time about their love for the middle.

It's not single payer; it's not a public option. But neither is it the present disaster.

August 12, 2009


Sam Smith

There's a myth that progressives have to love big government and the right has to hate it. And so they do. And we tend to sit contentedly in the rows the media and politicians have assigned for us.

But, in fact, the idea of the devolution of power has crossed ideological lines many times,. For example, the American left in the 1960s was deep into community, decentralization of power and the local. Today, the buy local movement reflects some of the same values.

The liberal establishment, however, doesn't like decentralization, a fact reflected in how Obama has handled the stimulus, education and healthcare issue and how easily each has stirred heavy resentment.

An important new Pew Research poll illustrates the problem:

- 24 percent of Republicans, 35 percent of independents, and 61 percent of Democrats view the federal government favorably.

- 57 percent of Republicans, 48 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Democrats view state governments favorably.

- 70 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents, and 60 percent of Democrats view local governments favorably.

In other words, the more we decentralize the more we come together and the more we like government.

It's not an either-or matter. For example, the stimulus bill could have included far more local initiative and control over spending than it did and would have been far more acceptable as a result. Ironically, one of the major beneficiaries would have been Democratic mayors.

But the standard liberal approach - raised to a new level by Obama - assumes that those at the top know more than those at lower levels. It's the old bias of the progressive movement of the early 20th century: favoring purported experts over politicians.

But there is no reason for the modern left to buy into it. For example, in 1992, for example, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. And this was two decades after the first Earth Day. Similarly, as Washington was still struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And where would gays be today without local and state action on their behalf?

A lot of this involves not so much ideology as class and culture. The Washington establishment does consider itself smarter than the rest of the country, it shows, and it angers many beyond the capital's borders. This gets translated into various issues, some rational and some ridiculous.

But this isn't as surprising as some would have us believe, nor as incurable. If you're going to run a grad school government, you've got to expect some kickback. After all, there's nothing in the Constitution that gives government to the brightest and the best, even if its authors were brighter and better than most in charge of things these days. They understood that power had to be shared, even if it slowed things down a bit or created a variety of Americas. That's why we have the Tenth Amendment, one of the constitutional provisions least liked and most ignored by liberals.

As the Gallup poll shows, the closer government comes to us, the better we like it. This is not a left or right thing. After all, there would be no gay marriage at all if it weren't for the devolution of power.

If liberals, progressives and Greens would speak up for the decentralist values that helped to create America they would find themselves with many new allies and far fewer foes.

Sam Smith, Great American Political Repair Manual, 1997 - Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution -- having government carried out at the lowest practical level -- dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton's and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore's. And conservative columnist William Safire admits that "in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for 'power sharing,' a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of 'bureaucracy' were often leveled at centralized authority."

The modern liberals' embrace of centralized authority makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results -- symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name. Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining.

In fact, a sensible and democratic devolution of power should be high on the American repair list. The question must be repeatedly asked of new and present policies: how can these programs be brought close to the supposed beneficiaries, the citizens? And how can government money go where it's supposed to go? Because such questions are not asked often enough, we find huge disparities in the effectiveness of federal programs.

For example, both social security and the earned income tax credit function well with little overhead. In such programs, the government serves primarily as a redistribution center for tax revenues. On the other hand, an enviromentalist who ran a weatherization program told me that she figured it cost $30,000 in federal and local overhead for each $1600 in weather-proofing provided a low income home.

Similarly, a study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low income family -- well above the poverty level. The newsletter Neighborhood Works quoted Art Lyons, director of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis, on what goes wrong: "Salaries of social service professionals are spent back in wealthy communities. The building rent goes to the landlord, who probably doesn't live in the neighborhood. So the system creates a self-contained prophesy of poverty and deprivation."

Even when you don't want to devolve power out of the federal government -- and in many cases you don't -- the programs themselves can be brought closer to people. Some agencies already are quite decentralized, including US Attorney offices, the Coast Guard, the National Park Service and the delivery of mail. In such cases, the federal government is represented by a small unit (or even an individual such as your postal carrier) with considerable autonomy within a defined turf.

The principle could be applied to other agencies. Why not, for example, have 50 state directors for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, each (as with US Attorneys) approved by the state's senators and each given a budget, a menu of programs, and considerable autonomy in how to handle them? I would wager that there would be at least two results: (1) citizens would have a better idea of what was going on in federal housing programs and (2) the programs would get better.

August 09, 2009


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - Liberalism has been long been trapped by the notion that its virtues are defined by the evils of the political right. In fact, while opposing the right may be a necessity, it's not a policy.

The dangers of MSNBC style liberalism - i.e. behaving like Bill O'Reilly but just flipping the issues - has been well demonstrated during the healthcare debate. By obsessing on things like the conservative protests at Democratic town meetings, there has been little interest in looking at the Democratic health plans and seeing why so many are so easily worried by them.

For example, the Democratic plans don't build on what's working now i.e. lowering the age of Medicare or otherwise expanding its approach.

They are hopelessly complex, an open invitation to political disaster.

They contains a lot of cutesy provisions that may appeal to health industry lobbies but make what's going in the bills seem opaque.

They treat health too much as a budget issue without dealing adequately with people's medical concerns.

They are far too friendly with the health industry and the bills show it.

If the Democrats bomb on healthcare, the primary blame rests with them. The right's opposition was a given from the start. What wasn't a given was that the Democrats would mess things up so badly.

It didn't have to be like this. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 53% of Americans strongly support lowering Medicare to 55. Another 26% support it some what. That's 79% of Americans favorable to a plan the Democrats wouldn't even consider.

August 05, 2009


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - It looks like more than a few large media will start charging for online visits. From the Business Spectator in Australia:

[][] Media giant News Corporation Ltd intends to charge for all its news websites in a bid to lift revenues. . . News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch told analysts in a conference call after News Corp released its full year results that the traditional newspaper business model has to change. "The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive methods of distribution," Mr Murdoch said. "But it has not made content free. Accordingly we intend to charge for all our news websites," he said. He said News Corp would use the Wall Street Journal's online vehicle as a model. [][]

And from the Digital Journal:

[][] In a speech in London, Financial Times editor Lionel Barber said that within the next 12 months, news agencies will be charging access to their websites. The only thing that will be discussed, according to the editor, is whether they should charge per month or per article or possibly even both. "I confidently predict that within the next 12 months, almost all news organizations will be charging for content." This speech comes the same week after Digital Journal reported that the CEO of said that the “era of online content is coming to an end." The New York Times is also planning a subscription-based model that would charge users $5 per month to gain access to its online content. Currently, the discussion between the two models, pay-per-article and per-month subscription, is to decide which is more cost effective and revenue based. Pay-per-article would mean that you would pay for every article you read, very similar to the $0.99 songs on iTunes. The other model is to charge users per week or per month. For example, $1.99 per week, or the New York Times' plan on charging $5 per month. [][]

It sounds good, but life moves on and print media will never be what it once was. Even the Washington Post admitted recently that it "is now largely an education company -- its Kaplan Inc. education unit provided 58 percent of the parent company's second-quarter revenue, as opposed to the newspaper division, which chipped in 15 percent. "

The model for the planned shift - the Wall Street Journal - isn't doing all that well either. Reports Australia's Age: "Dow Jones & Company's fourth quarter operating results declined from the same period a year ago, due to lower advertising revenue at The Wall Street Journal and lower information services revenue that more than offset reduced operating expenses and increased circulation revenues, which were driven by price increases at The Wall Street Journal."

So what will happen if major newspapers switch to a subscription or pay per view basis? It's speculative but here are some reasonable guesses:

-- Some of the papers will do well, but probably based on further cutbacks in operating costs; others will simply find it yet another false trail. Even if they do financially better, they will become culturally less important.

-- It will be a blessing for radio and television which will stand out as free sources of hard news. CNN and MSNBC could be big beneficiaries.

-- Public radio and television will get a big boost. Hell, I might even start watching the Jim Lehrer Hour.

-- TV and radio internet sites will also become more important.

-- The already large role of non-profits in investigative reporting will greatly increase. Many papers, including the Washington Post and NY Times, have effectively turned over some of their investigative reporting role to non-profits, although they won't admit it. When a non-profit discovers something wrong in America and these papers feature it, they're saving themselves a lot of money over what it would cost if their staff had to come up with the story. Look for non-profit journalism on the web to grow substantially.

-- Smaller online journals will be helped by the biggies demanding bucks for their web content. For example, one can imagine a site like Politico growing rapidly.

-- Regional media with free online sites may find it worthwhile to throw in more national coverage, such as in a field that particularly affects their local readers. This would bring readers who otherwise wouldn't be interested. And there may be a revival of Washington coverage by local media. It sounds strange today, but one of the capital's most famous journalists wrote a Washington column for almost fifty years, covered World War II and was second in appearances on Meet the Press, only behind David Broder. May Craig's employer was a family owned chain of Maine newspapers including the Portland Press Herald.

-- Most exciting would be if - after the biggies went under paid cover - there was an explosion of an online alternative press not unlike what happened in print in the 1960s, which saw a few such publications expand to over 400 and helped to change America's politics forever. Unnoted is the role that technology played in the growth of the 1960s alternative media: the introduction of offset printing left many papers with expensive machines lying idle much the week. One solution: cheap printing for others including the underground press. This journal, for example, could get 10,000 copies printed by a conventional weekly paper with a new printing press for around $400.

Technology is the often underrated partner of change. For example, some believe that the civil rights movement was aided significantly by the spread of air conditioning in the south, which permitted that region to move into a more modern urban culture.

But with each change in technology, there are the stuffies who just don't get it. The ones who resisted the change from horses to cars, sail to steam, and talk to hard type. They see themselves as granted a permanent place in society. Which is why today's publishers prattle on about the quality of their journalism that made them so great. In fact, it wasn't so much the quality as the scarcity of their journalism that made them successful. Once journalism, with the Internet, became available to the many and not just an elite, the whole game changed.

History suggests that those who resist technological change have a hard time catching up. It is, after all, a whole new culture and one you can think - but not buy - yourself into. So I wish the stuffies the best of luck with their attempt to turn the Internet into the same old thing it has long replaced, but I suspect that what they'll really be doing is leaving more free space where others can grow.

August 04, 2009


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - A striking chart accompanying Charles Blow's NY Times recent column on music sales raises questions about how important unpaid downloads actually are. For example, in 2008 paid downloads of singles brought in about one billion dollars. The best year for CDs was 1999 when there were roughly $15 billion of sales. Since then CD sales have collapsed.

But let's imagine that everyone who had downloaded a single in 2008 had bought a CD instead; the gross sales would be greater than the record year for CDs a decade ago.

NPD has estimated that there were 5 billion songs downloaded for free in 2006, suggesting a loss of one third of the value brought in by CDs in their peak year.

But is this accurate? Even if the estimate is correct, it ignores the fact that people do things for free that they would never pay for. Imagine you are at a party, and the host suddenly announces that there will be a charge for the drinks and the snacks. What effect would this have on your thirst and desire for tortilla chips?

In 2006, NPD estimated that there were only 15 million free downloaders. For them to have driven gross sales to what they were back in 1999, each free downloader would have to had spent about $150. This is the dream world in which the RIAA lives.

The recording industry - whether because it has been badly misled by its lawyers or because of innate incompetence - has been trying to justify its collapse on free downloads. The evidence suggests that the shift from CDs to singles has been immensely more important, but it's more comforting to blame it all on others. Interestingly, as America's newspapers go in a similar collapse, their publishers are doing much the same thing: blaming web aggregators, even though for many years reporters at the NY Times, Washington Post and elsewhere were tipping off Matt Drudge about their forthcoming scoops because - unlike their bosses - they knew it would drive readers to them.

Further, I suspect technology explains only a portion of the story. Culture changes as well as does technology, yet because it is not as easy to quantify, it doesn't get anywhere near the attention.

Still, people's willingness to buy music is based on a number of non-technological considerations such as;

What role does music play in our culture? Do we sing as much as we used to? Is music - outside of concerts and other performances - a community matter or is it highly atomized like other aspects of our culture?

Much of music traditionally came out of communities - work songs, gospel music and expressions of nationalism, regionalism and other values. This side of music has faded, replaced by sounds imposed on society by wealthy corporations. What does this do to sales?

What if these sounds - once the effect of intensive marketing has worn itself out - don't have much lasting intrinsic appeal? What if they leave an aura that actually drains music of some of its excitement and cultural importance? What if RIAA is killing music?

Some years back, I wrote about jazz this way:

"The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one. The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both. Here's how Wynton Marsalis describes it: 'Jazz is a music of conversation, and that's what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person's point of view.'"

What current popular musical genre is similarly integrated into the culture?

Here's another interesting question: could recording industry lawyers be killing music?

When I started as a musician the most illegal thing you could do was to make a fake book under the counter at a music store for $25. The fake book contained the melody lines and chords of hundreds of tunes and the music publishers didn't like it. But once you had the music you could pretty well do with it what you wished. Worries about licensing, copyrights and royalties were at a low level. Short of making a record - not a common opportunity - the music was out there in a kind of de facto public domain.

The current emphasis on individually composed music as opposed to cover versions - i.e. playing a tune someone else made popular - may in some way reflect the change that has occurred. When I hear people talking about cover versions, it still seems odd since I come from a time when 99% of the music played by ordinary musicians were cover versions of one sort or another.

It's hard to get a handle on all this because of the way the marketers and media have manipulated music. In 2002, I wrestled with this in an essay:


Michael Jackson sold 47 million copies of "Thriller," which sounds like a lot until one realizes that Dunkin' Donuts sells more cups of coffee than that in one month. In fact, more people have a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee than watch Bill O'Reilly on the same day. But note where Dunkin' Donuts stands in the media cultural hierarchy compared to Jackson and O'Reilly.

It's actually far worse than that. An ABC News poll last year found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that we do not know how the over 200 million Americans who did not buy a copy of 'Thriller' felt about Jackson. Some were married to a purchaser, some have downloaded it, some picked it up second hand or from a sibling. But is it not possible that among this vast pool we might not actually find a many people who disliked Jackson's music as liked it?

Yes it is. And although I have not been able to find an American study that deals with this issue, a fascinating examination of Japanese adolescent tastes in western music suggests what we might discover.

Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn't like it at all:

Rock: 45, 28

Rap: 26, 43

Top Forty: 25, 43

Classical: 23, 48

Jazz: 23, 45

Techno: 22, 47

Soul: 17, 53

Country: 15, 53

Heavy Metal: 12, 48

Punk: 11, 66

Easy Listening: 10, 60

Note that rock is the only category in which the percentage of those not liking it at all does not near 50%. Note also that one of the most disliked genres is something the media has labeled "easy listening."

So if you can't stand Jackson or his music, don't feel bad. You are just part of the silenced majority. Go down to Dunkin' Donuts have a cup of coffee like a real American.


Music has become the property of a small number of corporations, advised by some extremely bad lawyers, producing material that is often of marginal virtue and promoted by a media that doesn't care what it sounds like as long as the visuals and the story line are good You will know this has changed when a song about the second great depression hits the charts.

Charles S. Blow, NY Times
- According to data from the Recording Industry Association of America, since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of those sales, after adjusting for inflation, has dropped by more than half. At that rate, the industry could be decimated before Madonna's 60th birthday. The speed at which this industry is coming undone is utterly breathtaking.

First, piracy punched a big hole in it. Now music streaming - music available on demand over the Internet, free and legal - is poised to seal the deal.

The problem is that if people can get the music they want for free, why would they ever buy it, or even steal it? They won't. According to a March study by the NPD Group, a market research group for the entertainment industry, 13- to 17-year-olds "acquired 19 percent less music in 2008 than they did in 2007." CD sales among these teenagers were down 26 percent and digital purchases were down 13 percent.

And a survey of British music fans, conducted by the Leading Question - Music Ally and released last month, found that the percentage of 14- to 18-year-olds who regularly share files dropped by nearly a third from December 2007 to January 2009. On the other hand, two-thirds of those teens now listen to streaming music "regularly" and nearly a third listen to it every day.

Even if they choose to buy the music, the industry has handicapped its ability to capitalize on that purchase by allowing all songs to be bought individually, apart from their albums. This once seemed like a blessing. Now it looks more like a curse.

In previous forms, you had to take the bad with the good. You may have only wanted two or three songs, but you had to buy the whole 8-track, cassette or CD to get them. So in a sense, these bad songs help finance the good ones. The resulting revenue provided a cushion for the artists and record companies to take chances and make mistakes. Single song downloads helped to kill that.

A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That's less than one percent of the songs.

NPD –According to The NPD Group, a leader in market research for the entertainment industry, teens (age 13 to 17) acquired 19 percent less music in 2008 than they did in 2007. CD purchasing declined 26 percent and paid digital downloads fell 13 percent compared with the prior year. In the case of paid digital downloads, 32 percent of teens purchasing less digital music expressed discontent with the music that was available for purchase, while 23 percent claimed to already have a suitable collection of digital music. Twenty-four percent of teens also cited cutbacks in overall entertainment spending as a reason for buying fewer downloads.

The downturn in paid music acquisition was matched by a downturn in the quantity of tracks downloaded from peer-to-peer networks, which fell 6 percent in 2008. The number of teens borrowing music, either to rip to a computer or burn to a CD, fell by 28 percent.

"While we expected to see the continued decline in CD purchasing among teens in NPD's music tracking surveys, it was surprising to see that fewer teens downloaded music from P2P sites or borrowed them from friends," said Russ Crupnick, entertainment industry analyst for The NPD Group. "These declines could be happening due to a lack of excitement among teens about the music available, but it could also reflect a larger shift in the ways teens interact with music, given that so much music is now available whenever and wherever they want it."

NPD's music tracking surveys noted sharp jumps in teen's usage of online listening sources and satellite radio in 2008. More than half of teens (52 percent) listened to online radio in 2008, compared to just 34 percent in 2007. Downloading or listening to music on social networks also saw a large increase – from 26 percent in 2007 to 46 percent in 2008; satellite radio listening among teens increased from 19 percent in 2007 to 31 percent in 2008. . .

According to NPD's Digital Music Monitor, 70 percent of Web-using teens actively used a portable music player in the fourth quarter of 2008, which is virtually unchanged from the same quarter the year prior.

"The music industry still hasn't recovered from declining CD sales, and now they are being challenged anew by slowing digital sales among teens," Crupnick continued.

Guardian, UK - According to a new study, of the 13m songs available for sale on the internet last year, more than 10m failed to find a single buyer. The research, conducted by the MCPS-PRS's Will Page and Andrew Bud, brings us that much closer to proving Sturgeon's Law - that 90% of everything is crap. It also provides evidence for the famous old rock critic adage - your favorite band sucks. . .

Page is the chief economist at the MCPS-PRS Alliance, a not-for-profit royalty collection agency. According to his and Bud's research, 80% of all revenue came from about 52,000 tracks – the "hits" that powered the music industry. Broken down by album, only 173,000 of the 1.23m available albums were ever purchased – leaving 85% without a single copy sold.