Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Misleading News about Auto Insurance

Actually this isn't a post about auto insurance, which is big in the news today because Massachusetts is experimenting with "competitive" auto insurance. No, this is a post about the media, which has shameless trumpted a particular news tidbit without providing crucial context.

In Massachusetts, ever since a disasterous experience with market-based competition for insurance rates in 1977, the rates an auto insurance company charges are set by a state regulatory agency. Rates are set statewide, which means drivers in rural areas are subsidizing drivers in urban areas. In 1977, when this subsidy was removed, rates overall shot up over 14% but in the urban areas it was much, much worse than that. Over howls of protest, the flat rate was reintroduced after seven months.

What is often being quoted is that Massachusetts is the "only state in the US where auto insurance rates are set by the State."

While this is factually accurate, it paints a very misleading picture...namely that the other 49 states are all using the same system, and only Massachusetts is not. This is not true - every State regulates their auto insurance differently; while none of them quite come to the level of direct State control over rates, it's not like there is zero regulation elsewhere.

Since this new decision could mean significantly higher or lower rates (mostly higher - we're terrible drivers in Mass.) it's a very politically charged issue. That means people will no doubt be contacting the Legislature to sound off on it.

The upshot here is the way the media at large (both the Boston Globe and WBUR 90.9FM...I haven't checked any other media outlets yet) is reporting this is presenting a subtle but powerful political argument that argues against the status quo. That is unseemly for news organizations that claim to present objective news.

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