By Steven Brill
This is the second entry in a new regular column, “Stories I’d Like To See.” It’s the notebook of someone who still thinks like an editor but is over the thrill of managing a reporting staff – or the hassle of dealing with “great” story ideas that crash and burn when someone actually goes out and reports them and learns anew that even the best editors can’t hit much better than the best ballplayers (meaning three or four out of ten story ideas will actually work).
1. Obamacare’s Word Game Screw-Up:
As the debate over the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate moves toward an election-year climax in the Supreme Court, I’m surprised that I haven’t read a story recounting the deliberate but boneheaded decision by Administration officials to call the fine imposed on those not buying health insurance a “penalty” instead of labeling it a “tax.” Someone in the White House counsel’s office or the Justice Department must have spoken up and told everyone else what most constitutional lawyers who have looked at the current litigation now readily acknowledge: that there would be almost zero chance of opponents mounting a credible attack on the provision if it was called a tax. In fact, in one of the lower court skirmishes over the constitutionality of the law, conservative D.C. Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh seemed to enjoy tweaking the Obama people by readily conceding that the law would be okay had they simply called it a tax. Congress has a well-established right to tax anything or anyone.
Apparently afraid of burying the word tax somewhere in the 974-page bill, the Administration insisted on calling the fine – which, ironically will be assessed on tax returns and collected by the IRS – a “penalty” for not buying insurance. Did any of the President’s lawyers warn the former constitutional law professor about this?
2. Arianna’s Real Deal
The long, gauzy profile of Arianna Huffington in New York magazine raised more questions than it answered. While we read continually of how she is shaping an empire at AOL, I’d like to know how much control over editorial content and budgets Arianna Huffington’s AOL buy-out deal actually allowed her to retain (assuming she had such control in the first place under her original investors). And what percent of the giant purchase price was she able to cash out on Day One versus having to wait and presumably be at the mercy of AOL’s declining prospects? Although it’s been reported that virtually all of the deal was in cash, as opposed to AOL stock, I’ve never seen the details published anywhere, let alone anything about what independent power she actually has. Does her employment contract with AOL have a non-disparagement clause that would see her risk any remaining payout if she gets into a public fight with CEO Tim Armstrong as the water continues to circle the drain at AOL?
3. Who’s got the power?
The aftermath of October’s freak snowstorm in the Northeast resulted in the second time in three months that power at our home in Northern Westchester was out for a full week. So I became curious about our local utility company. It turns out it’s not so local. It’s owned by a Spanish power conglomerate called Iberdrola. One would think that because electricity can’t be delivered digitally and because electric power – or at least the electric wires running from into our homes – is the one regulated natural monopoly that makes sense, that regulators would want electric utilities to be local to assure better service and tighter control. (Haven’t we learned from the mortgage banking debacle what happens when all links to a community are erased?) But unless I live in Madrid or Barcelona the guy responsible for putting my wires back up on the pole isn’t likely to be my neighbor.