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. "The people who own the country ought to govern it." -- John Jay

Heads up! Your First Amendment right to free speech is being trumped by the rights of corporations.

Some of you may not be aware that corporations have First Amendment rights.

It does seem sort of silly, since the Constitution clearly states that it is written for "We the people of the United States." It does not say "the people and the corporations of the United States."

Nevertheless, corporations have been held to be "persons" under the Constitution ever since a particularly screwy decision in 1886 called Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, a decision that ought to be more famous and more discussed than Roe vs. Wade. Well, it's time to take heed, because those corporations -- Inc., Corp. and Swoosh -- have not only been granted rights, they are now busily taking away YOUR rights just as fast as they can.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, "Local phone companies have vast databanks about each customer's calling habits, including who they call, how long they talk and what types of telecommunications services they purchase."

For example, when you call your local phone company's customer service, you hear a recording telling you the company needs your permission to use your billing information to sell you new services. The customer must then press 1 to grant said permission. This is the "opt-in" system required by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was infamously biased in favor of the industry to begin with, and now the Supremes have just made it even more worthless.

U.S. West sued, saying that the rule violated the company's freedom of speech by limiting the kinds of contact that the company could have with its customers. And you know how your phone company likes to keep in touch. Especially during dinner.

Another corporate menace to free speech is the proliferating number of "John Doe" lawsuits being filed against Internet users who say anything critical about a corporation. On message boards run by Yahoo, Raging Bull, Silicon Investor and America Online, intrepid citizens make observations ranging from "This company stinks" to "Sell now! They just lost their biggest contract." Naturally, the companies are furious and file these John Doe suits to find out who posted the messages.

Heaven forbid that YOU should have a right to say anything negative about dear old Inter-Global Mega-Universal Widget. Some Net users are suing back to halt the corporate lawsuits aimed at uncovering their identities.

The Supremes' worst decision in this vein, in my opinion, is still the 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo stinker that held that money is free speech in politics -- hence, any attempt to control money in politics is a violation of free speech. Happily, the court did rule in January that a Missouri law limiting the contributions that individuals can give to a political candidate during a single election campaign is constitutional.

As Scott Turow wrote three years ago, every citizen has opinions of political matters. Few have money to promote their beliefs. As long as politicians must approach the well-to-do on bended knee to secure their chances for election, it is inevitable that the concerns of that narrow segment of society will have a disproportionate influence on national policy.

Duh. Just remember -- as Milton Friedman, The Man himself, said: The only social responsibility of corporations is to increase profits.

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.