Caught in a Loop (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

So much of the news, so many of the issues that are in the headlines in 2013, seems depressingly familiar: the same old problems, the same old arguments. But even that realization isn’t novel. The Hebrew king Solomon noticed the same thing three millennia ago, in the very first chapter of Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

In the fall of 2003, the topics I wrote about for this space included cellphone technology, state funding of public schools and the escalating cost of health care. (I even wrote about the societal importance of journalism and had some kind words for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, lest anyone mistake my open letter to its publisher last week for something new.)

My 10-year-old column on cellphones does seem quaint. For one thing, the Associated Press Stylebook still treated cellphone as two words back then. The big cellphone news in those pre-iPhone days was phone number portability: Cellphone customers would, for the first time, be able to change carriers without changing numbers, and the carriers were making all sorts of great offers in order to get existing customers to re-up their contracts before the new law took effect.

At the time, I described phone number portability as a “tidal wave” comparable to the introduction of competing long-distance services 20 years earlier. A decade later, it’s hard to remember that your phone number used to belong to the phone company (sort of like the phone in my parents’ house was merely rented from Southwestern Bell).

Looking back at that column made me realize that it had been a long time since I’d seen a really compelling offer to get my cellphone business. Today the only hook seems to be more frequent phone upgrades, and it’s big news every time Apple decides to offer a new mutation of its iPhone. The consolidation of the wireless industry must be just about complete.

In the fall of 2003, Mike Huckabee — then a relatively obscure, pragmatic governor rather than a national celebrity — was growing frustrated with rural legislators and their constituents who were in denial over the necessity of consolidating scores of the state’s tiniest school districts in order to achieve the constitutional guarantee of equitable and adequate education for all Arkansas students.

“I wouldn’t want to be the next guy who asks Mike Huckabee to make the taxpayers of Arkansas subsidize a few more inefficient, underachieving school districts,” I wrote.

Since then, the number of school districts has been reduced from 310 to 238, which is still quite a lot for a state of Arkansas’ population. But the issue of state money and local money for schools is still with us and as complicated as ever. During the three-day special legislative session earlier this month, our current relatively obscure and pragmatic governor was frustrated by lawmakers who refused to make a few small-but-lucky school districts whose property taxes are inordinately large per student help subsidize the less fortunate districts.

Health insurance was a hot topic in 2003, especially in Arkansas, where a state law designed to inject more competition into provider networks had been brought back to life by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a similar law from Kentucky. The law, championed by Bill Gwatney in 1995, was called the Patient Protection Act, which sounds an awful lot like the federal Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act that you may have heard of more recently. The state law was better known as “any willing provider,” and Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield would fight it tooth-and-nail until it finally took effect in 2005.

In 2003, the annual Employer Health Benefits Survey by Kaiser Family Foundation (a national treasure) found that the average cost of group health insurance for a family was $9,068 a year. This year, the same survey found the average price was $16,351 — an increase of 80 percent in just 10 years. (And that actually recognizes some moderation in health care inflation; in the 10 years between 2002 and 2012, the average price of family coverage increased by 97 percent.)

There was nothing like the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov in the fall of 2003, although the launch of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit website in the fall of 2005 was similarly challenged. Even incompetent introduction of an expensive new entitlement program isn’t really a new thing.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.