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Whither Medicare? And What Are You Afraid Of?

After 45 years as part of national policy, Medicare is so deeply rooted in the national psyche that one person at a South Carolina town hall last summer demanded of the Republican congressman presiding over the event that he ''keep your government hands off my Medicare.'' The congressman could not persuade his constitutent that Medicare is, in fact, a government program.

It's an enormously popular one but it's running out of money, and the Concord Coalition, the nonpartisan group dedicated to fiscal responsibility, organized eight-hour dialogues with people from every demographic stripe to figure out how to fix Medicare. Young people were surprised that older people actually liked Medicare, and huge majorities of people agreed that money could be saved by measures that emphasized end-of-life hospice care over heroic and expensive medical technologies. More than a quarter of Medicare money is spent on the last year of a person's life. Most didn't want Medicare costs to swell the deficit, and agreed that they could handle some higher taxes if strict criteria for Medicare performance were met. Now, whether this sweet reason can get a hearing from politicians who make hay and headlines by making dire threats instead of finding common ground -- well, you know how that goes.

Congress is considering ''ping-ponging'' the health care overhaul measure instead of putting it to a standard conference committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House versions. For Democrats, that could mean dodging procedures that would raise the filibuster specter and getting a single bill passed and off to President Obama's desk in time for the state of the union speech in February. Congressman Henry Waxman, the high-ranking LA Democrat, will be working on smoothing out those legislative differences, and told us all about it -- and Republican congressman Michael Burgess, a former ob-gyn, told us how he thought Republicans and their policy ideas had been sidelined during the health care discussion. Expect more on this.

And even as President Obama wrapped up his remarks about the investigation into the attempted terrorist attack of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day, author Barry Glassner updated us on ''The Culture of Fear.'' Ten years ago, his book outlined how we fear the wrong things, in no small part thanks to a rapacious 24-hour news channel/news media cycle that elevates one missing child into a national panic, and makes us terrified of an exotic virus but ignore the far more common risks that come from less-than-clean foods. His updated post-9/11 book puts terrorism in a ''fear perspective,'' along with minor trends and topics that chew up the headlines and play havoc with our psyches, even though the actual threats are minute.

Next time, California takes steps to re-institute executions after a four-year hiatus because of questions of constitutionality.

-- Patt Morrison