Our COVID Mortality Rate Is Down 85%?

That’s a statistic in the news, but what does it mean? CNN reported this on Friday:

Friday’s case count of at least 80,005 surpasses the country’s previous one-day high of 77,362, reported July 16, according to Johns Hopkins University.
US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams cautioned earlier Friday that hospitalizations are starting to go up in 75% of the jurisdictions across the country, and officials are concerned that in a few weeks, deaths will also start to increase.
The good news, Adams said, is that the country’s Covid-19 mortality rate has decreased by about 85% thanks to multiple factors, including the use of remdesivir, steroids and better management of patients.
According to CNN, the Surgeon General  made these remarks during an online discussion of global health policy at Meridian Global Leadership Summit. Meridian is a “non-profit, non-partisan diplomacy center” in Washington. I couldn’t find exactly what he said, either from Meridian’s site, the Surgeon General’s site or the Surgeon General’s Twitter account. The Center for Disease Control doesn’t seem to report a mortality rate.
Looking at statistics from The New York Times, however, indicates what the Surgeon General was talking about. Back in mid-April, the US was reporting around 2,200 deaths for every 32,000 confirmed cases. Now 800 deaths are being reported for around 68,000 cases. That translates into 6.9% of cases ending in death in April vs. 1.2% now, a decline of 83%. So it’s true that the mortality rate has dropped quite a lot.
This is confirmed by two studies reported by National Public Radio:
Two new peer-reviewed studies are showing a sharp drop in mortality among hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drop is seen in all groups, including older patients and those with underlying conditions, suggesting that physicians are getting better at helping patients survive their illness.
The article mentions other reasons the mortality rate may be dropping:
[Researchers] say that factors outside of doctors’ control are also playing a role in driving down mortality. . . . Mask-wearing may be helping by reducing the initial dose of virus a person receives, thereby lessening the overall severity of illness for many patients. . . . Keeping hospitals below their maximum capacity also helps to increase survival rates. When cases surge and hospitals fill up, “staff are stretched, mistakes are made, it’s no one’s fault — it’s that the system isn’t built to operate near 100%”. . . 
This hardly means we’ve turned the corner on COVID-19, as one of the presidential candidates claims. A mortality rate of 7% is still high relative to other diseases. Serious illness is never a joy and even patients who survive COVID-19 sometimes suffer long-term effects.
In addition, two other numbers recently reported aren’t encouraging. The pandemic is causing significantly more deaths, either directly or indirectly, than are being reported:
In the most updated count to date, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that nearly 300,000 more people in the United States died from late January to early October this year compared to the average number of people who died in recent years. Just two-thirds of those deaths were counted as Covid-19 fatalities, highlighting how the official U.S. death count — now standing at about 220,000 [or 225,000] — is not fully inclusive [Stat].
One model predicts that the next four months will be especially bad in the US:
More than 511,000 lives could be lost by 28 February next year, modeling led by scientists from the University of Washington found.

This means that with cases surging in many states, particularly the upper Midwest, what appears to be a third major peak of coronavirus infections in the US could lead to nearly 300,000 people dying in just the next four months.

In fact the University of Washington warned that the situation will be even more disastrous if states continue to ease off on measures designed to restrict the spread of the virus, such as the shuttering of certain businesses and social distancing edicts. If states wind down such protections, the death toll could top 1 million people in America by 28 February, the UW study found [The Guardian].

Finally, the presidential candidate who doesn’t think we’ve turned the corner offered this timely reminder:

President Txxxx’s plan to beat COVID-19

Nine days.

Harry Truman’s Healthcare Plan and Our Current Sorry State

What President Truman tried to do and where we are today, by David Oshinsky for The New York Review of Books:

“Bow your heads, folks, conservatism has hit America,” The New Republic lamented following the 1946 elections. “All the rest of the world is moving Left, America is moving Right.” Having dominated both houses of Congress throughout President Franklin Roosevelt’s three-plus terms in office (1933–1945), Democrats lost their majorities in a blowout. Some blamed it on the death of FDR, others on the emerging Soviet threat or the bumpy return to civilian life following World War II. The incoming Republican “Class of ’46” would leave a deep mark on history; its members, including California’s Richard Nixon and Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy, were determined to root out Reds in government and rein in the social programs of the New Deal.

One issue in particular became fodder for the Republican assault. In 1945 President Harry Truman had delivered a special message to Congress laying out a plan for national health insurance—an idea the pragmatic and immensely popular FDR had carefully skirted. As an artillery officer in World War I, Truman had been troubled by the poor health of his recruits, and as chairman of a select Senate committee to investigate the defense program during World War II, his worries had grown. More than five million draftees had been rejected as “unfit for military service,” not counting the 1.5 million discharged for medical reasons following their induction. For Truman, these numbers went beyond military preparedness; they spoke to the glaring inequities of American life. “People with low or moderate incomes do not get the same medical attention as those with high incomes,” he said. “The poor have more sickness, but they get less medical care.”

Truman proposed federal grants for hospital construction and medical research. He insisted, controversially, not only that the nation had too few doctors, but that the ones it did have were clustered in the wrong places. And he addressed the “principal reason” that forced so many Americans to forgo vital medical care: “They cannot afford to pay for it.”

The facts seemed to bear him out. Close to half the counties in the United States lacked a general hospital. Government estimates showed that about $11 million was spent annually on “new treatments and cures for disease,” as opposed to $275 million for “industrial research.” Though the nation claimed to have approximately one physician per 1,500 people, the ratio in poor and rural counties regularly dipped below one per 3,000, the so-called danger line. On average, studies showed, two thirds of the population lacked the means to meet a sustained health crisis.

The concept of government health insurance was not entirely new. A few states had toyed with instituting it, but their intent was to replace wages lost to illness or injury, not to pay the cost of medical care. Truman’s plan called for universal health insurance—unlike the Social Security Act of 1935, which excluded more than 40 percent of the nation’s labor force, mostly agricultural and domestic workers. Funded by a federal payroll tax, the plan offered full medical and dental coverage—office visits, hospitalization, tests, procedures, drugs—to all wage and salary earners and their dependents. “Needy persons and other groups” were promised equal coverage “paid for them by public agencies.”

People would be free to choose their own doctors, who in turn could participate fully, partly, or not at all in the plan. Private health insurance programs would continue to operate, with policyholders required to contribute to the federal system as well—a stipulation the president compared to a taxpayer choosing to send a child to private school. “What I am recommending is not socialized medicine,” Truman insisted. “Socialized medicine means that all doctors work as employees of government. The American people want no such system. No such system is here proposed.”

It did him no good. At the first Senate hearing on the proposal, Ohio’s Robert A. Taft, . . .  known to his admirers as “Mr. Republican,” denounced it as “the most socialistic measure that this Congress has ever had before it.” A shouting match ensued. . . . Taft retreated, but not before vowing to kill any part of the plan that reached the Senate floor.

. . .  A predictable coalition soon emerged, backed by pharmaceutical and insurance companies but directed by the American Medical Association, which levied a $25 political assessment on its members to finance the effort. At its crudest, the campaign pushed a kind of medical McCarthyism by accusing the White House of inventing ways to turn a brave, risk-taking people into a bunch of “dainty, steam-heated, rubber-tired, beauty-rested, effeminized, pampered sissies”—easy pickings for the nation’s godless cold war foe. “UN–AMERICAN SYSTEM BLUEPRINTED IN THE KREMLIN HEADQUARTERS OF THE COMMUNIST INTERNATIONALE,” read one AMA missive describing the origins of Truman’s plan.

Precious freedoms were at stake, Americans were told: when the president claimed that medical choices would remain in private hands, he was lying; federal health insurance meant government control; decisions once made by doctors and patients would become the province of faceless bureaucrats; quality would suffer and privacy would vanish. Skeptics were reminded of Lenin’s alleged remark—likely invented by an opponent of Truman’s heath plan—that socialized medicine represented “the keystone to the arch of the socialized state.”

The economist Milton Friedman once described the AMA as “perhaps the strongest trade union in the United States.” It influenced medical school curriculums, limited the number of graduates, and policed the rules for certification and practice. For the AMA, Truman’s proposal not only challenged the profession’s autonomy, it also made doctors look as if they could not be trusted to place the country’s needs above their own. As a result, the AMA ran a simultaneous campaign congratulating its members for making Americans the healthiest people in the world. The existing system worked, it claimed, because so many physicians followed the golden rule, charging patients on a sliding scale that turned almost no one away. If the patient was wealthy, the fee went up; others paid less, or nothing at all. What was better in a free society: the intrusive reach of the state or the big-hearted efforts of the medical community?

Given the stakes, the smearing of national health insurance was not unexpected. What did come as a surprise, however, was the palpable lack of support for the idea. For many Americans, the return to prosperity following World War II made Truman’s proposal seem less urgent than the sweeping initiatives that had ended the bread lines and joblessness of the Great Depression. Even the Democratic Party’s prime constituency—organized labor—showed limited interest. During the war, to compensate workers for the income lost to wage controls, Congress had passed a law that exempted health care benefits from federal taxation. Designed as a temporary measure, it proved so popular that it became a permanent part of the tax code.

Unions loved the idea of companies providing health insurance in lieu of taxable wages. It appeared to offer the average American the sort of write-off reserved for the privileged classes, and indeed it did. Current studies show that union members are far more likely to have health insurance and paid sick leave than nonunion workers in the same industry. . . .

At about the same time, popular insurance plans like Blue Cross emerged to offer cheap, prepaid hospital care . . . . In 1939 fewer than six million people carried such insurance; by 1950, that number had increased fivefold. In the years after Truman’s plan died in Congress, the government filled some of the egregious gaps in the private insurance system with expensive programs for the poor, the elderly, and others in high-risk categories, thereby cementing America’s outlier status as the world’s only advanced industrial nation without universal health care. . . .

[In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service] succeeded because the Labour Party won a landslide victory in 1945 in a country battered by war and facing a bleak economic future—precisely the opposite of the American experience. Opinion polls in the UK showed strong support for a government-run system offering universal, comprehensive, and free health care financed by general taxation. But the threat of a physicians’ strike forced Labour’s health minister, Aneurin Bevan, to scrap the idea of turning doctors into full-time government employees. . . .

The UK excels in universal coverage, simplicity of payment, and protection of low-income groups. While the NHS remains quite popular, it also is seriously underfunded: the UK ranks dead last in both health care spending per capita ($3,900) and health care spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (9.6) among the six European nations [reviewed in Ezekiel Emanuel’s book Which Country Has the World’s Best Healthcare?] The most common complaints . . .  concern staff shortages and wait times for primary care appointments, elective surgeries, and even cancer treatments . . .  “The public does not want to replace the system with an alternative,” writes Emanuel. “All the public wants is a fully operational NHS.”

By contrast, the US health care system—if one can call it that—excludes more people, provides thinner coverage, and is far less affordable. It combines socialized medicine practiced by the Department of Veterans Affairs, four-part federal Medicare (A, B, C, D) for the elderly and disabled, state-by-state Medicaid for the poor, health coverage provided by employers, and policies bought privately through an insurance agent or an Affordable Care Act exchange—all of which still leave 10 percent of the population unprotected. . . . “The United States basically has every type of health financing ever invented,” Ezekiel adds. “This is preposterous.”

And extremely expensive. America dwarfs other nations in both health care spending per capita ($10,700) and health care spending as a percentage of GDP (17.9). Hospital stays, doctor services, prescription drugs, medical devices, laboratory testing—the excesses are legion. Childbirth costs on average about $4,000 in Western Europe, where midwives are used extensively and charges are bundled together, but close to $30,000 in the US, where the patient is billed separately by specialists—radiologists, pathologists, anesthesiologists—whom she likely never meets, and where charges pile up item by item in what one recent study called a “wasteful overuse of drugs and technologies.” There is no evidence that such extravagance makes for better health care outcomes. The rates of maternal and infant death in the US are higher than in other industrialized nations, partly because the poor, minorities, and children are disproportionately uninsured.

For head-spinning price disparities, however, nothing compares to pharmaceuticals. Americans account for almost half the $1 trillion spent annually for prescription drugs worldwide, while comprising less than 5 percent of the world’s population. It is probably [i.e. definitely] no coincidence that the pharmaceutical industry spent almost twice as much on political lobbying between 1998 and 2020 as its nearest competitor, the insurance industry. . . .


Whenever the president is asked why he wants to eliminate the Affordable Care Act (which means people with “pre-existing conditions” would no longer be protected, among other things), he says he’s going to announce a beautiful replacement for the ACA “in two weeks”. Or “next month”. It’s always in two weeks or next month. Reporters never press him for details, because they know he’s full of crap.

Una volta un truffatore, sempre un truffatore (once a con man, always a con man).

PS:  Ezekiel Emanuel says different countries do different things very well, but if he had to choose his personal favorite, he’d pick healthcare in The Netherlands, with Germany, Norway and Taiwan in the running.

Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

A book editor named Gerald Howard believes Don DeLillo deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature:

By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile. 

He says DeLillo’s case for the Nobel rests on four propositions:

1. “No American novelist has examined more broadly and with greater insight and originality our postwar history and experience”.

2. “The astonishing and unmatched string of four midcareer masterpieces: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). [All] permanently lodged in the record of American literary greatness.

3. DeLillo’s influence:  [His] work is currently available in forty-three languages and/or countries. He is a true global phenomenon. . . . In the anglophone and domestic spheres, there is no writer more revered than DeLillo.

4.  “The dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. . . . He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career”.

I’ve read the four novels mentioned above and several of his others. DeLillo is clearly worthy of the Nobel Prize. It’s too bad the Swedish Academy marches to its own peculiar set of drums.

Since DeLillo has a new novel coming out (The Silence), The New York Times interviewed him this month. They gave the interview this title: “We All Live in Don DeLillo’s World. He’s Confused By It Too”:

A permeating paranoia. Profound absurdity. Conspiracy and terrorism. Technological alienation. Violence bubbling, ready to boil. This has long been the stuff of Don DeLillo’s masterly fiction. It’s now the air we breathe. For nearly 50 years and across 17 novels, [he] has summoned the darker currents of the American experience with maximum precision and uncanny imagination.

The interviewer asked a question about DeLillo’s 1976 novel, Ratner’s Star. It’s not a well-known book, possibly because it’s been called “his weirdest novel” and “famously impenetrable” (which must mean “famously” among a small group of readers and critics). A footnote to the Times interview says it’s an “intricately structured semi-sci-fi romp”. That was enough for me to get a copy and start reading (I had a copy years ago but it’s long gone).


For the first 275 pages, Ratner’s Star didn’t seem impenetrable at all. It’s about a 14-year old math genius who (coincidentally) has won the Nobel Prize. He is invited to a secretive, well-funded installation where lots of brilliant, generally strange people are trying to decipher what appears to be a message from an alien civilization. DeLillo writes beautifully and the plot is interesting. Will young Billy Twillig (formerly “Terwilliger”) from The Bronx (where DeLillo is from) figure out what the message means? Does it mean anything at all? I liked this part of the book and its amusing conversations and technical explanations and foresaw no problem reading the rest.

Then the plot takes a detour. Billy descends into a cavern far beneath the installation with a small group whose purpose is to create a purely logical, universal language. They hope to use this new language to communicate with the alien civilization (assuming there are aliens out there). Since the little group’s purpose makes no sense, the novel’s suspense disappears. There is frequent stream of consciousness. The point of view suddenly changes from one character to another. There are tangents and long passages that feel pointless, as if DeLillo is treading water. Billy becomes a secondary character.

Something eventually happens in a section called “A Lot Happens”. Something else happens in the next section, “I Sit A While Longer”. But between those two developments, a peripheral character spends several pages exploring a cave because he’s fascinated by bats and a journalist decides her manuscript’s many blank pages are fine because she knows what words belong there. The plot resumes in the final pages; before that there’s rough going. Anybody interested in DeLillo’s work should start elsewhere, maybe with one of the four novels that would justify giving him the Nobel Prize.

“Merit” vs. Community

An Oxford professor of economics and public policy writes about “meritocracy and its critics” for the Times Literary Supplement:

What is going on with our conception of community? Amid the prevailing cacophony of mutual abuse, serious answers to that question are sorely needed and, belatedly, the cavalry is arriving. Communitarian intellectuals, who see a good society as a web of mutual regard rather than a random accumulation of entitled individuals, are beginning to turn the tide on decades of damaging ideas. Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit, is a valuable reinforcement to this process: Sandel is the most important and influential living philosopher. And Sandel is not alone. For example, in The Third Pillar (2019), Raghuram Rajan, the world’s most respected financial economist, set out a powerful critique of our exaggerated reliance on states and markets: his missing third pillar was community. Many other similar analyses are out or currently in press: an intellectual cascade is under way.

Journalists have also caught up with community. David Goodhart’s new book, Head Hand Heart, critiques the excessive prestige awarded to cognitive skills, relative to equally demanding vocational skills, and the moral strengths needed for care work. In a telling statistic, the author shows that, in contrast to other European societies, the UK spends eight times more on training the cognitively gifted half of the population than on everyone else. . . .

The tide may be turning but Sandel and his fellow communitarians are all building on a long-dead, and mutually acknowledged, pioneer: The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by Michael Young, the remarkable social activist who wrote the Labour Party manifesto of 1945. Young presciently realized that meritocracy would be even more socially divisive than the then-prevailing class system of inherited status. His essential insight, based on his experience as a social anthropologist in the East End, was that a fully meritocratic society, with widespread ladders by which “the best” could ascend, would create a new class of “the best”, thereby turning those left at the bottom into “the worst”, bereft of dignity.

And so it has proven. The costs are both physical and mental – physical as evidenced by the falling life expectancy recently documented by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism; mental as evidenced by the anger harnessed by populist politicians in recent years. For while the intellectual cavalry was still asleep, mavericks spotted it coming and offered snake oil remedies that identified the anxiety while proposing fantasy solutions, leading to the political mutinies that baffled and exasperated so many of the successful. Even in 1958, this argument was uncongenial to many on the Left. The Fabian Society refused to publish Young’s book; denial has since become more entrenched.

Sandel develops Young’s critique of meritocracy by tracing its history back to theological disputes between grace and deeds as the criteria for entry into heaven. In the fifth century Saint Augustine emphasized grace, arguing that we did not earn heaven but were granted it by God’s grace. Yet heaven as the reward for deeds kept reappearing. The sale of indulgences by the Church to finance St Peter’s helped to provoke Martin Luther’s rebellious insistence on grace. The same dispute then rapidly infected Protestants. John Calvin took the power of grace into the cul de sac of predestination: some were born blessed by grace and others were not. How could we tell who was blessed? Because they performed good deeds.

Repeatedly, Sandel argues, societies have veered into exaggerated respect for success. . . . Meritocracy intrinsically over-emphasizes the distinctive individual attributes of “the best”. And as those attributes in modern materialist society are exceptional cognitive ability and exceptional effort, the rich and successful have come to see themselves as uniquely clever and hard-working. And deserving. This attitude is Sandel’s target, and it has been the leitmotif of our times . . .

Yet something is lost in that translation of grace into a secular vocabulary. It is the need to transcend “me” and “now”. In short, Sandel offers a profound critique of individualism, making the case for the move away from self to community, from “my wants now” to “the common good”. By this approach we transcend ourselves neither by the utilitarian calculus of the biggest sum of utilities nor the Rawlsian contrivance of detachment from our place in society by a veil of ignorance, but rather through the satisfaction gained from fulfilling social obligations. . . . A healthy society would aim to equip everyone to be able to contribute in some way to our common good: an objective quite different from “let the best rise”. . . .

An efficient journalistic magpie, Goodhart picks out an eclectic range of telling evidence. On the rise of “my wants now”, he cites the sharp decline in moral language: the use of words such as “gratitude”, “humility” and “kindness”, he claims, drawing on a Google study of words published in books, has dramatically reduced over recent decades, to be replaced by more economic language. On his final page Goodhart cites recent research on measuring wisdom, not a social science concept but one used by psychiatrists. They find it, he tells us, to be unrelated to cognitive ability. Psychiatrists define wisdom as “concern for the common good”, the loss of which being where Goodhart ends and Sandel starts.

I end with my initial question. What Sandel, Goodhart and all the communitarians are lambasting is the recent division of society created by a cognitive route to success that belittles all else. . . . Sandel’s thesis is . . . accurately captured as one of “insiders” versus “outsiders”, a distinction first formulated in the analysis of the labour market. Insiders have habitually defended privilege from outsiders: see the professionals such as lawyers, medics and accountants, whose high earnings are protected by their various associations through control of entry (eg setting entry standards unnecessarily high to prevent delegation to the less skilled). But insider advantage extends far beyond the labour market: many of our aspirations are set by the prevailing narratives of the privileged. In Happy Ever After (2019) the behavioural scientist Paul Dolan . . . showed how unwarranted norms set by the insider class, such as the over-emphasis on cognitive achievement, condemn the outsider class to a loss of respect and self-worth. . . .

Insider privilege has become both educational and spatial: the cognitively endowed, clustered together in the metropolis, have life chances radically superior to those of the outsiders. And insider advantage, just like the class system that it replaced, replicates itself. By assortative mating and hothousing their children, the insiders pass their privilege on: they have rapidly become a hereditary caste. All have the opportunity to succeed but the insiders have decisively rearranged the ladders, while – especially on the Left – bemoaning the “inequality” for which [the insiders] are primarily responsible. Goodhart tells a story about the advice offered by senior civil servants to the Minister of Education during the UK years of austerity. It was to save money by closing the colleges of further education. The 8:1 differential in spending on tertiary education, in favour of universities, would become 8:0. Their justification was that “nobody would notice”. What they meant was that the insiders (such as they themselves) wouldn’t notice, since they sent their children to university.

Not before time, the smugly successful are getting their comeuppance: our understanding of contemporary society is finally changing. An insider with a belated conscience, as these disruptive ideas are absorbed by my class, I will try to resist the pleasures of watching hubris turn to nemesis.


I was suspicious about psychiatrists saying “wisdom” involves concern for the common good, but the American Psychological Association offers this definition

wisdom: the ability of an individual to make sound decisions, to find the right—or at least good—answers to difficult and important life questions, and to give advice about the complex problems of everyday life and interpersonal relationships. The role of knowledge and life experience and the importance of applying knowledge toward a common good through balancing one’s own, others’, and institutional interests are two perspectives that have received significant psychological study.

Will society ever devote fewer resources to cultivating the head and more to helping the hand and heart? Recent appreciation for workers who keep society functioning, not just doctors and nurses and medical technicians but truck drivers, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, nursing home staff, et al. seems unlikely to reorder society’s priorities unless government takes much more control of “the market”. Will more people’s merit be recognized and rewarded? Time and the results of future elections will tell.

A Surprising Free TV Service for Us Cord Cutters (World Series Edition)

We canceled our cable TV service a few years ago and haven’t really missed it. But there are times being a “cord cutter” is a problem, like when a certain team is playing football and the game is on a local TV station. (We could try putting an antenna on the roof and watch for free — like in olden times — but that’s not a good option for us.)

Tonight being the first game of the World Series, somebody asked whether we could watch it. In the past, that’s meant signing up for one of the services that transmit local stations over the internet. We’ve used those a couple of times (via our handy Roku box) but they’re not worth the monthly subscription.

In search of a good option, I got a very pleasant surprise. There is a free service that transmits local TV stations on the internet. It’s called Locast. They can explain:

Locast is a not-for-profit service offering users access to broadcast television over the internet. We stream the signal . . . to select US cities. Locast has modernized the delivery of broadcast TV by offering streaming media free of charge. This is your right, this is our mission. 

In today’s modern world, we find ourselves in many different settings. Access to broadcast TV is our right. The existing antiquated technology doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of the average user who deserves to access broadcast programming, using the Internet as we do for almost every other service.

. . . many households just can’t get a proper signal to receive broadcast TV. This can be due to geographic anomalies or living in more isolated rural areas. Rather than relying on a traditional rebroadcast antenna, these folks should be allowed to use a modern method of streaming through our digital transcoding service. Free your TV!

From what I can see, this thing actually works. I created an account and registered our Roku box. Lo and behold, there are maybe 30 channels being broadcast out of New York City. Lo and behold, it’s Locast!

The service is free, but they do ask for donations, beginning at $5 a month (a reasonable request):

To do this we will need your support. There are considerable costs for equipment, bandwidth, and operational support that helps run Locast. These costs will only go up as we expand our service to new markets, as well as when more and more people cut the cord to become new Locasters.

There’s actually more to the story. I wondered who’s behind this operation. It turns out to be an organization called Sports Fans Coalition:

SFC is a grassroots, sports fans advocacy organization. We’re made up of sports fans who want to have a say in how the sports industry works, and to put fans first. 

We have one goal: to give you a seat at the table whenever laws or public policy impacting sports are being made.

So in addition to doing things like lobbying Congress and suing TV networks, they are making local TV available to around 44% of the US population. 

But wait! Is this legal? Apparently it is.

Locast.org is a “digital translator,” meaning that Locast.org operates just like a traditional broadcast translator service, except instead of using an over-the-air signal to boost a broadcaster’s reach, we stream the signal over the Internet . . . 

Ever since the dawn of TV broadcasting in the mid-20th Century, non-profit organizations have provided “translator” TV stations as a public service. Where a primary broadcaster cannot reach a receiver with a strong enough signal, the translator amplifies that signal with another transmitter, allowing consumers who otherwise could not get the over-the-air signal to receive important programming, including local news, weather and, of course, sports. Locast.org provides the same public service, except instead of an over-the-air signal transmitter, we provide the local broadcast signal via online streaming.

According to Locast, federal law makes this possible:

Before 1976, under two Supreme Court decisions, any company or organization could receive an over-the-air broadcast signal and retransmit it to households in that broadcaster’s market without receiving permission (a copyright license) from the broadcaster. Then, in 1976, Congress passed a law overturning the Supreme Court decisions and making it a copyright violation to retransmit a local broadcast signal without a copyright license. This is why cable and satellite operators . . . must operate under a statutory . . . copyright license or receive permission from the broadcaster.

But Congress made an exception. Any “non-profit organization” could make a “secondary transmission” of a local broadcast signal, provided the non-profit did not receive any “direct or indirect commercial advantage” and either offered the signal for free or for a fee “necessary to defray the actual and reasonable costs” of providing the service. 17 U.S.C. 111(a)(5).

Sports Fans Coalition NY is a non-profit organization under the laws of New York State. Locast.org does not charge viewers for the digital translator service (although we do ask for contributions) and if it does so, will only recover costs as stipulated in the copyright statute. Finally, in dozens of pages of legal analysis provided to Sports Fans Coalition, an expert in copyright law concluded that under this particular provision of the copyright statute, secondary transmission may be made online, the same way traditional broadcast translators do so over the air.

For these reasons, Locast.org believes it is well within the bounds of copyright law when offering you the digital translator service.

One last word from Locast:

Why hasn’t anyone done this before?

Good question. We don’t know. But we did a lot of due diligence before launching and learned that the technology to offer a digital translator service has gotten a lot less expensive and the law clearly allows a non-profit to provide such a service. So we’re the first. You’re welcome.

Now, if World Series games didn’t average 3 1/2 hours. . .