AUSTIN, Texas -- So you're going along thinking it's the year 2000, Information Age, digital revolution, high-tech economy, all that jazz, and then you look at the headlines.

American General, one of the biggest insurance companies in the country, right up until this April was charging black customers up to 33 percent more than white customers for policies designed to cover burial costs. Huh?!

Coca-Cola -- not exactly a hick, backwater organization -- has just settled a race-discrimination suit filed by current and former employees. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but it was enough to knock 38 cents off Coke's stock price.

Nextel Communications Inc., a wireless communications company, just got hit with a suit by 300 current and former employees complaining about racial and sexual discrimination.

Thirty-nine current and former agents of State Farm are asking Congress to investigate "deceptive, predatory and illegal conduct" by the country's largest insurance company. State Farm says the allegations are "unfounded." The agents are complaining about red-lining and overcharging.

In another action, a Cleveland group has brought red-lining charges against Nationwide Insurance and Farmers Insurance Group. The Cleveland group did a three-year investigation and found that whites were treated better than blacks and Hispanics.

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (another organization not noted for naivete) has discriminated against women, opening the door for a class-action suit there.

Hello? Earth to corporate America? How long does it take? Is the answer still blowin' in the wind?

All of which brings us to the current imbroglio in Congress on how to proceed with covering drug costs for elderly and disabled Americans.

One-third of seniors currently have no insurance to cover drug costs, and because we permit pharmaceutical companies to charge rip-off prices, it is not uncommon to find seniors with drug bills running over $1,000 a month.

Here's the political deal: The R's don't really want to do anything about this, but the D's know it's a dandy election-year issue, so they're pushing hard. The R's are hoping to protect themselves politically by offering a plan to arrange drug insurance through private companies instead of through Medicare.

If insurers do not voluntarily enter a particular market, the government would then offer financial incentives to draw them in. In other words, we bribe them to take the business.

What we have here -- positioning aside -- is a fundamental disagreement about whether it is better to let the government or the private sector handle something like this.

The private sector's record is not reassuring. In the past few years, dozens of HMOs have pulled out of Medicare, leaving 700,000 elderly people in a mess, and more health plans are expected to withdraw this year. On the other hand, we have also had two decades of Reaganite rhetoric spreading the idea that government can't organize a two-car funeral.

The phenomenon of distrust of government (more or less our own government, which in theory we more or less run) and the exploitation of that distrust for political purposes are two of the more depressing aspects of our public life.

Personally, I'm agnostic on the efficiency question. Setting aside the proposition that delivery of social services is going to be inherently inefficient to some degree, I've never seen any evidence that any large bureaucracy -- public or private -- functions well. For every military snafu ever committed, some Dilbert in corporateland can show you an equal corker.

It seems to me that the main issue here is whether it's more efficient to have the government provide this particular service, or to try to bend things, since there's no natural profit motive involved, to somehow provide a profit motive. Even the most devoted privatizers need to recognize that there are some things the market just cannot do -- health care and low-income housing being two of them.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.