Not With Our Money

I’ve written previously on CBS’s refusal to air an advocacy ad sponsored by the MoveOn.Org voter fund. CBS, while refusing to run that advertisement, citing a policy against running controversial issue ads, planned to air the Bush administration’s television ad promoting the new Medicare prescription drug law. Initially, a petition sponsored by MoveOn.Org dissuaded CBS from running that ad on the grounds that it should not run a thinly-disguised commercial for Bush’s reelection campaign while refusing to air an unsubtle amateur advertisement drawing the viewers’ attention to the Bush administration’s sumo-sized federal budget deficit. CBS, however, has decided again to run the Medicare ad, after some token changes to the 30-second spot that acknowledge that old people’s savings under the plan may vary. This advertisement evokes a traditional caveat in television ads: “batteries not included.” Unlike most advertisements, however, the Medicare ad is publicly funded. The Bush administration is spending $9.5 million to air the ad during the early phase of Bush’s reelection campaign. As a past and future taxpayer, I object. The law itself is questionable at best—as is the entire patchwork of government agencies, HMOs, and insurers that constitute the U.S. health care system. Bush’s plan does not truly lower the cost of prescription drugs for most people and does not support Medicare’s existence in the long run. The U.S. pays higher prices for prescription drugs than any other country. In essence, while other nations’ national health plans use their weight to achieve lower—but still real—profits for drug companies and lower prices for consumers, the U.S. subsidizes the research and development costs for the world’s drugs. Patent law shields new drugs from market competition for years. Since market mechanisms fail to force prices down when drug companies, shielded by patents, do not have to compete under the rules of classical competition, government action is necessary to keep prices reasonable—although the drug companies need some profits to reinvest in research and development. Bush’s law, however, legally precludes our government from negotiating for lower prices. The questionable merits of the law aside, the government should not have produced an advertisement to explain it. The law’s media coverage should have explained it sufficiently—a danger which terrifies the Bush administration. For fear that people see that Bush’s drug plan is incomplete and that its patent laws protect drug companies, the Bush administration is running a Medicare ad to convince people that Bush’s drug plan is a good idea and that, by extension, Bush is full of good, reelection-worthy ideas. No matter what the message, the government should not be spending taxpayer money to air the ad. This is particularly irksome—a pebble in the taxpayers’ shoe—unless, of course, you happen to be a major television network such as CBS. Our government represents its citizens, in theory at least. By means of Bush’s Medicare ad, the citizens are informing themselves about a drug plan that they have approved by electing its proponents, in theory at least. Being informed is good. We shouldn’t have to pay $9.5 million to major television networks, however, to inform ourselves. That the government should spend taxpayer money on an advertisement on commercial television is nonsensical, no matter how worthy the cause being advertised. The Bush campaign should not use taxpayer dollars to promote Bush’s reelection. Moreover, CBS and Fox are lobbying the government for further relaxation of FCC rules regulating large media outlets. While networks lobby the Bush administration for looser rules, the government should not simultaneously be involved in a commercial transaction with major networks, buying ads, for instance. That might lead to corruption.