Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nation’s Michelle Goldberg nails GOP for denying poverty exists

by Marc Jampole
Michelle Goldberg puts a lot of facts together to reach her perceptive conclusions about Republican attitudes on American poverty in “Poverty Denialism,” in the latest Nation. 

Goldberg quotes the usual suspects—FOX commentators, Bobby Jindal, Tea Party Congressmen—to demonstrate that the GOP denies poverty exists, and instead proposes that there are only a bunch of people who could work if they wanted to but prefer to sit at home getting fat on government handouts.

The article points out that the Republicans could blame President Obama for poverty, if they wanted to. But to do so would be to admit that poverty exists and require them to present a plan to deal with it. Goldberg recalls that Nixon, Kemp and even Bush II proposed initiatives to address poverty.  All the current Republicans want to do now is cut, cut, cut.  I urge you to read Goldberg’s article.

The sheer meanness in the attitudes of most Republicans is dazzling. They are willing to watch their fellow citizens starve so that taxes on the wealthy and corporations can remain low and go even lower.  It’s not even good economics, since the poor will spend all the money the government gives to them and thereby fuel the economy and create more jobs, whereas the wealthy recipients of GOP largess are just going to save it. But these Republicans don’t really care about creating new jobs or strengthening the economy. They want theirs. Thus they ignore the poor except to cut their food stamp benefits by 7% and to make it harder for them to get public assistance, or to make clever and cruel comments about their laziness.  

The current Republican neglect and mocking of poverty represents the height of selfishness. But it only makes sense: Selfishness goes hand-in-glove with a materialistic culture in which the mass media and TV commercials tell you to indulge yourself all the time.

Of course the same people who fund the GOP mostly control or own the companies that are advertising and producing our entertainment. It’s up to the American people to reject this selfish thinking and elect representatives who want to make sure that everyone in the country eats at night, can access needed medical care and has a chance to attend a quality school, As humans in a wealthy society, we have both a right to these basics and the responsibility to make sure that everyone has them. Republicans once knew it, but the current bunch seems to have forgotten.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rollout and communications snafus don’t invalidate good of Affordable Care Act

By Marc Jampole

So far, the rollout of the health exchanges—the heart of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—has reminded me of the incompetence associated with the Bush II Administration. The interesting part of the Obama Administration's bungling of the rollout is that the mistakes have not been made now in the heat of the moment, but months ago when Barack Obama and his inner circle had time to think about it.

Waiting until the Supreme Court affirmed the ACA to begin writing the software and setting up the website was at the very least overly cautious. I would be among the ones who would call it gutless, because it was not in the best interest of the United States and its citizens to wait and the money saved would really have been a drop in the bucket in the current deficit.  Far better it would have been if the Administration had given the tech folks the time to do more extensive testing of the system. We should note, however, that as with many large websites of private sector companies, it’s very possible that the health exchange website would have still encountered problems even with extra time.

It’s a shame, because the state exchanges are mostly working and it’s primarily the people in the Republican-controlled states who have to wait until the federal website is fixed to sign up for health insurance.  Those are the same states in which the poor eligible for Medicaid coverage under the ACA won’t get coverage because their governors rejected the federally funded expansion of Medicaid in their states.

Perhaps more interesting to me is the mistake in messaging that the President made when it comes to the relatively small number of people who are losing their existing policies.  

First the facts: ACA sets new standards for health insurance plans. Setting standards has been a government function since at least the Sumerians. It is the government that tells us how much an ounce must weigh and how much fat and extenders you can throw in and still call it “lean ground beef.” All indications are that in writing both the laws and the regulations, large health insurers had input into developing the new standards. The policies held by the 3 million who will have to change do not meet the basic standards established in the ACA. Many are lousy policies, not worth the paper upon which they’re printed.

What the President said—months ago—was that no one will lose their policies. What he should have said was that less than one percent of people would have to change policies because their policies were below the new standard.  This more truthful statement would have set the bar of expectations at the appropriate level. Many of those who have to change policies would still be angry and frustrated, especially if they lived in Republican-controlled states and couldn’t get through on the federal website. But the President’s misstatement would not have provoked a scandal in the news media, nor would the rest of the public be up in arms.

Setting the expectations of the audience is one of the basic principles of communications. The operating theory is the idea of “relative deprivation,” which basically states that people get angrier at being deprived of something than at never having had it. Contrast the positive reaction if you promise someone $80 and you give her $90 to the negative reaction if you promise someone $110 and you give her $100 for doing the same job. The public was led to believe that no one would lose their policies and now feels the frustrations of relative deprivation.

When I conduct seminars on communications, I advise my students—mostly executives and professionals—to set the audience’s expectations at the very beginning of the interaction. For example, before you open the floor to questions at a meeting of many people, always say that individuals will have the chance to ask only one question and one quick follow-up question until everyone has had a chance to pose questions. Without setting that expectation, if someone tries to grab control of the meeting by barraging you with questions and long comments, the audience may think you’re trying to suppress discussion when you try to stop him. But if you have set expectations, when the demagogue tries to take control, the audience will be on your side and shout out, “Give someone else a turn.” I’ve seen both scenarios play out multiple times.

In a sense, the website snafu is also a failure to meet expectations. When an organization announces a website is up and running, the expectation is that it will work.   

I’m fairly confident that the website will get fixed and that the health exchanges, new standards and other features of the new law will lead to many more Americans being covered by good health insurance plans, an improvement in the nation’s health and a decline in the cost of medical care. The Affordable Care Act will work, but it’s unfortunate that before it does, the Administration has to learn some basic lessons in setting expectations…and meeting them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Jewelry ads pop up - a sign that America’s favorite holiday—Black Friday—is fast approaching

By Marc Jampole

On the side of the highway into Pittsburgh today I passed a billboard for Orr’s, a regional jewelry chain and it reminded me that we are about to be inundated with ads cajoling us to buy bits of rocks embedded in metal and other functionless baubles.

The Orr’s billboard is mostly white with black lettering focused on the words, “Stephen Webster,” who, a quick trip to the Internet told me, is a British jewelry designer. On the right is a highly stylized photograph of a nearly bald woman with her head and neck twisted upwards almost in the elongated style of the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo. The only colors on the page are the jewels in the rings and earrings she wears. But the figure is so much like the background white that all people in passing cars can really digest are the words “Stephen Webster.” 

The unspoken message that Orr’s assumes we will get is that Stephen Webster is the equivalent of Cadillac or Apple, a premium brand. But I didn’t know it, nor did the other person in the car, nor did anyone in my office, nor does anyone except those interested in jewelry or perhaps design in general.  Thus, what Orr’s is selling is not the “Stephen Webster” brand, but the fact that Orr’s has the brands.  A quick trip to the Orr’s website confirms this analysis: the home page features a long horizontal billboard space in which ads for Stephen Webster, Henri Daussi, Roberto Coin, Cartier (the only one I recognized) and Marco Bicego rotated in succession.

The Orr’s basic marketing message—We have the best brands—got me thinking of other approaches that jewelry stores take to selling what are essentially luxury and to my mind frivolous products with arbitrary value.

We are starting to be bombarded by TV ads by Jared, a national chain which primarily places its stores in malls. For years, Jared has used the line, “He went to Jared.” The line is whispered as lascivious gossip between neighbors, screamed to best friends and sisters, intoned seriously by admiring but envious buddies. The context is always other people and their reactions. Whether you label the operative behavior as “Keeping up with the Joneses” or “If you got it, flaunt it,” the message that Jared is trying to make is come to Jared to make sure your friends and neighbors respect, honor, envy and like you.

Thorsten Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” seems to be the operating theory here. For Veblen, the leisure class engages in conspicuous consumption for the sole purpose of making individual distinctions based on financial wealth.  You show you are worth something by buying your spouse “diamonds as big as horse turds,” as my father used to put it. In this case, you make sure that everyone knows you are prosperous by going to Jared.

Jared has been using the slogan for years, so it must be working. But around even longer and working even better, I think, is the slogan of another national chain, Kay's. Their line, sung in commercials after the presentation of a ring, earrings, bracelet or watch leads to an embrace, is “Every kiss begins with Kay.”

The reason I like the Kay’s approach—selling sex—is because it comes closer to the reason that most jewelry (other than graduation watches and sweet 16 charm bracelets) is purchased: to give to a beloved to symbolize a sexual relationship. Yes, some people want to make sure that they have the top quality, whatever that means, and have been trained to associate brands with quality. But they aren’t buying jewelry to get a brand. And yes, keeping up with or surpassing the Joneses is a big motivation to many people when they purchase jewelry, but it’s only a secondary motivation. No one buys an engagement ring to please the family (although he or she may have proposed because of family or societal pressure). They buy the ring or the earrings or whatever for the loved one. They may select one item over another because they know it’s better than what the Joneses have, but only after the decision to buy has been made.

The causal connection between giving someone jewelry and engaging in sexual relations is strongly rooted in our society precisely for the reasons that Veblen details. It is a form of display that is supposed to make the wearer more attractive and more of a status symbol for the giver. The exchange of rings symbolizes marriage, which is a public construct and the traditionally sanctioned locus for sexual relations. We give a ring to mark the engagement, as well, and for key anniversaries. We are brainwashed that other types of jewelry are the go-to gift for the spouse.

In a real sense, jewelry commoditizes romantic relationships, which means it turns romance into something that can be bought and sold.  Instead of buying conjugal rights, you buy the symbol and give that to the object of affection.  In the world of symbols and hidden meanings by which our society lives, every kiss does (or can) begin with the presentation of jewelry. Kay’s hits the bull’s eye.