Monday, September 24, 2007

The "Market" Versus The Real World

My proposed headline is above; I’m not sure I fully understand the editor’s choice, but apparently this was an appreciated column because I got the bottom position rather than the left-hand rail. If you want to read their editorial, it’s available here, and the newspaper version of my response is here. This now makes about a dozen times that I had no clue what to write about for Sunday’s column, only to pick up the Thursday paper and decide that I just had to respond to their latest libertarian outrage.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 23, 2007

Last Thursday, the Tribune denounced Sen. Hillary Clinton’s just-announced health care plan. Providing universal coverage through government, they say, will make health care more expensive, health insurance less available, and give Americans fewer choices. Instead, the libertarian way to reduce health care costs is to provide "genuine market-based options."

To which I say: Compared to what? As Jonathan Cohn wrote, conservatives like to note that Medicare costs a lot. And so it does; we have the ability to provide a lot of health care in this country, and it's expensive. But what conservatives forget is that our system of private insurance costs a lot more.

Medicare has far lower transaction costs than private insurance, 3 percent overhead compared to the average insurance company’s 14 percent. (It’s attributed to Newt Gingrich that "one man’s $200 billion in waste is another man’s $200 billion profit stream.") All the complaints about Medicare -- that it’s bureaucratic, inflexible, costly -- apply with even greater force to private insurers. And Medicare doesn’t have to pay large executive salaries, fund stock options, or advertise.

Some people complain about the U.S. Postal Service, conveniently ignoring that when it comes to bad customer service, the USPS is a bunch of pikers compared to such private-sector stalwarts as the airlines or your cable guy. Health care providers hate dealing with Medicare -- until dealing with private insurers, who treat them worse.

Would providing universal coverage through government plan need more taxes? You bet. But my own business last year paid two-thirds of what we paid in all payroll taxes -- state income and unemployment, federal income, and FICA, and Medicare, and FUTA -- for health insurance premiums. And not everybody takes health insurance; those with spouses working for larger employers don’t, because big employers can offer better coverage than we can. If you hiked the employer share of all payroll taxes by 50 percent but relieved us of paying for health insurance, we’d increase our bottom line by tens of thousands of dollars.

Then there’s the other myth, that a more "free" health care "market" would fix these problems. Have you shopped for health insurance lately? We have to hire a broker to sort through all the various options. It’s worse than buying a home appliance, where every store can promise the lowest price on a particular model because the manufacturers give each retailer a different model number. We’re highly educated and Internet-savvy, but we can’t easily compare offerings because of all the permutations.

We’re also hampered because of a problem ignored by the Tribune, namely adverse selection, the huge economic incentives for private insurers to "cherry-pick" only the healthiest for coverage -- and to drop anybody who gets sick as fast as possible. One of my colleagues has a pre-existing condition, so we’re stuck. We can’t switch insurers without risking everybody’s access to so-called "reasonably-priced" coverage.

Sure, health insurance isn’t a perfectly free market, but the changes desired by the Tribune would make our problems worse. Without laws preventing insurers from dropping people with pre-existing conditions, or requiring disclosure and rate filings, or providing certain basic coverages mandated by state law (here in Arizona, such things as ambulatory surgery, mammograms, and coverage for adopted and handicapped children -- you got a problem with any of those?), we’d be worse off in a more free market.

This whole "trust the market!" rhetoric is pretty odd. What the Tribune wants is for people to refuse to pay for care their doctor recommends by balancing it against a cost-benefit analysis by the "consumer." As Ezra Klein noted, what libertarians want is for people to have financial incentives to ignore their doctor -- because if there aren’t any financial incentives, then people might decide to get a colonoscopy every week, just for the fun of it! Excuse me if I’m dubious.

Democrats want to offer everybody a choice of health insurance, like the federal employees program or Medicare. Republicans, and the Tribune, want to offer people a choice of tax deductions. Tax deductions are nice if you’re really rich and really healthy, but if not, you really ought to choose the health insurance.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

'Wingers Don't Sweat The Big Stuff

My suggested headline for this week was above but the editor instead went just-the-facts-ma’am. It's also not just GOP rage, it's also the local "Mini-Me" version of Maureen Dowd at the other newspaper, too. He also eliminated the internal rhyme in the first line ("My loyalties may stay with the U of A" scans, doesn’t it?). My spouse got a parking ticket on the ASU campus taking our son to his trumpet lesson last week, and she’s calling friends in the development office to see if the fine can be designated to the scholarships effort. Said spouse had nothing to do with the first paragraph, that’s all my own snark.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 16, 2007

My loyalties may stay with the University of Arizona, but this week it’s "Hooray for Michael Crow." The president of what unreconstructed Wildcats think of as "Arizona’s Second University" may not need my collaboration, but Crow and ASU are taking unjustified hits for their laudable efforts to find private scholarships for returning students barred from in-state tuition and grants under Proposition 300.

You may have missed talk radio’s latest manufactured outrage, but last November, Arizona voters approved an initiative that bars undocumented students from any state aid. Prop. 300 was part of several anti-illegal immigration ballot propositions that the Legislature, hoping to boost GOP turnout, placed on the 2006 ballot.

Republicans were hoping illegal immigration would diminish Gov. Janet Napolitano’s popularity. They thought it was a no-lose proposition, putting Napolitano between a rock and a hard place. If she opposed them, she’d offend independents and Republicans. If she supported them, she’d risk angering Hispanics, who vote Democratic here.

The rouse-the-base-by-initiative strategy didn’t work, however. Republicans forgot that similarly-popular minimum wage increases didn’t hurt some GOP governors’ reelection the previous cycle. The Arizona anti-illegal initiatives all passed by huge margins but didn’t affect candidate races. Democrats gained two U.S. House seats and seven legislative seats, and Napolitano carried every county in the state.

Arizona Republicans have moved so far to the right that they, unlike voters, can’t see that Napolitano actually is a centrist. She’s governed essentially as a slightly more moderate Jane Hull. A younger, smarter, more engaged, more policy-oriented, and far more active Jane Hull -- OK, not much like Jane Hull personally, but you get the idea. She’s a moderate, and if you still lived in Wisconsin, Napolitano could be the great GOP hope.

Republicans also greatly overestimated the willingness of Hispanics and liberals to abandon Napolitano. Of course, Democrats by nature grumble continuously, but we learned our lesson in 2000. Despite talk of "compassionate conservatism," a "more humble" foreign policy, and Texas-style "bipartisanship," it turns out (after 3,775 dead) that there really is a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties.

See, Hispanics not only read what the GOP says about immigration, they’re also reading between the lines. The biggest advantage Democrats now have among Hispanic voters is not being the party of Russell Pearce and Randy Pullen. There’s more to the Democratic agenda, but it’s an awfully powerful opening argument with Arizona’s fastest-growing demographic.

So an initiative that nobody much cared about -- merely a political tactic, approved by voters who, according to some polling, wanted to do something about illegal immigration and didn’t much care what -- is now law, and ASU and its undocumented students must deal with the aftermath. It’s not clear how Arizona benefits from making higher education more expensive for young people who, despite their immigration problems, are likely to remain here. It’s also not clear whether Prop. 300 saves any money, or frees up any spots at college for legal residents. But it sure felt good voting for it, didn’t it?

ASU is trying to work around the law to help its current students, by finding private scholarships and contributions to compensate for higher nonresident tuitions. This effort drives certain people, like talk-show hosts and columnists, absolutely nuts. Because a state school, even with private money, shouldn’t help actual individual students if it means violating the "spirit" of Prop. 300. They want that money to help Americans first.

That’s a nice, populist thought, but it raises a question. These same outraged "America First!" folks are all hunky-dory about spending another $200 billion in Iraq next year. The private money at ASU actually buys something for Arizona; some Arizona residents get an education. But it’s not clear how the "surge" and $200 billion makes things any better in Iraq in 2008 than now.

Maybe there is $8 billion in "pork" in the highway bill, and maybe ASU scholarships help undocumented aliens. But if you’re fine with sending $200 billion next year to Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts, then why are you complaining?

Monday, September 10, 2007

David Petraeus: The Caucasian Colin Powell

My suggested headline this week was "We’ve Seen This Show Before," but the editor went boring on me. (He may have an inexhaustible supply of Larry Craig jokes, but this headline, not so much.) Now that I've thought about it, the real headline should have been above. The newspaper version is here, for the next 2 weeks.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 9, 2007

This week, Gen. David Petraeus attempts to overcome facts with his resume. He's reporting to Congress after four separate reports, from the Government Accountability Office, the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, the Congressional Research Service, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, all found little basis for optimism in Iraq.

The GAO found that Iraq completed only three of 18 surge benchmarks; four were partially completed, and 11 weren’t met. The GAO helpfully reminds that these benchmarks were derived from commitments made by the Iraqi government last June, reaffirmed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in September, 2006 and January, 2007, and included in the May, 2007 International Compact for Iraq. The benchmarks themselves are in the "U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007," signed by President George W. Bush himself on May 25.

The Independent Commission (called the Jones Commission, after its chair) found that Iraq’s army is a year to 18 months away from capacity to handle internal security, and that the national police force and Interior Ministry are so sectarian and corrupt that the police should be disbanded and rebuilt from scratch.

The CRS report says the Iraqi government is "in essential collapse" and without "any real prospects for political reconciliation," and the U.S. Embassy says the Iraqi government is unable to rein in corruption in most ministries. Even conservative columnist David Brooks, last Tuesday before new right-wing talking points got distributed, wrote "the surge failed, and it failed in an unexpected way."

But if Petraeus is optimistic about his own accomplishments, well then! None of those other reports could possibly matter.

As we await the Petraeus report, remember that in 2005, as he ended one year in charge of training the Iraqi security forces, Petraeus said that Iraq’s military had made "enormous progress" and was getting closer to taking over from U.S. forces "with each passing week." Now two years later, the Jones Commission finds that "each passing week" means 12 to 18 months from now.

This steady drumbeat to a dramatic presentation resembles the buildup to the February, 2003 U.N. speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Bush administration sent Powell to make its case for the Iraq war, as he was their most popular official. (Powell told aides how Vice President Cheney said before the speech, "You’ve got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points.")

Powell’s speech, which he two years later called "painful" and "a blot" on his record, was rapidly discredited. Within six months, it became clear that the satellite photos, audiotapes, and hidden "classified" documents didn’t prove what Powell said they proved. There were no mobile rocket launchers and biological weapons hidden in palm groves. U-2 overflights and scientist interviews resumed after the speech, before the invasion. No anthrax was located; no trace of biological agents was found on the trucks claimed to be mobile bioweapons labs.

The F-1 Mirage jet shown in a video spraying "simulated anthrax," according to U.N. inspector reports, was destroyed in the 1991 Iran-Iraq war. The four tons of nerve agent VX were produced before 1991; most was destroyed during the 1990's under U.N. supervision, and experts say that VX would have decayed by 2003 anyway, and none was found. Nobody ever found any of the "100 to 500 tons" of "chemical weapons agent," the deployed-and-authorized-for-use chemical weapons in the field never appeared, magnets and aluminum tubes weren’t proof of a non-existent centrifuge program, and nobody has found any hard evidence of a revived nuclear program.

In short, none of it panned out, but Powell did manage to overpower pundit doubts. Even leading Democrats called his speech "irrefutable" (at least until it was completely refuted). So this week, when Gen. Petraeus -- the Caucasian Colin Powell -- gives himself an excellent grade, remember that there’s a considerable difference between being a military hero and giving an accurate report.

I love a man in uniform as much as the next guy, but let’s not again confuse a brilliant career with the facts.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

No Room In This Week's Column for the Larry Craig Jokes

With Sen. Craig issuing ambiguous statements about whether he actually will resign at the end of the month, I wanted to announce (but didn't have room in this coming Sunday's column) that I fully expect, by September 30, that I will end my term of making Larry Craig jokes. I and everybody on my staff (ha!) is busy preparing for the comedic transition (do we get to bring back Alberto Gonzales jokes?). I intend to resign myself to bathroom humor no longer being politically salient.

But like the Idaho senator, there’s a bit of ambiguity in my declaration. Are we really resigning, or is there some (ahem) wiggle room in our less-than-Shermaneque declarations?

So I get to wonder if Sen. Craig is auditioning to play Howard Brackett -- that’s the conflicted schoolteacher played by Kevin Kline -- in a senatorial remake of 1997’s In & Out. As Brackett’s students said of him, you also can say of Craig: "He’s smart and well dressed and very clean. It doesn’t look good."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It's Not The Democrats Campaigning on Controlling What Happens In Your Bedroom

Who would have thought that Larry Craig would be really old news by Sunday? It still got a rise out of two ‘wingers, who wanted to yell about Clinton. But after Sen. Vitter, they can’t really yell about Clinton anymore. (Unless Republicans want to campaign on the basis that unlike Democrats, they have to pay for sex?)

I wrote back to one guy still angry at the Big Dog that I’d take a bet, that the 2008 election should be a contest between people who think George W. Bush was a better president and people who think, like me, that Clinton was a better president. Let’s have a vote! He’d vote one way, I’d vote the other, but I’ll take my chances with everybody else. I haven’t heard back from him.

If you don't have time for the column, read a great Tom Tomorrow cartoon on the same point (but obviously, without my anecdote). My suggested headline was "Family Values" Is What Other People Need” but the editor went in a different direction.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 2, 2007

You'd think this week I'd be delirious with all the comedic possibilities, but I just don't know to compete with the most dour-faced guy in Congress, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Wide Stance, who's suddenly funnier than me.

We've learned a couple new political rules. First, regarding family values, it's not really about breaking the law. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., admits to hiring prostitutes, which is also a crime, but no Republicans called for his resignation. Sen. Craig's misdemeanor guilty plea becomes public, and Republicans are tripping over themselves calling on Craig to resign.

We've got two different sets of moral rules in play. Behavior that's illegal and destructive of those oft-praised family values can be apologized for and overlooked, so long as it's heterosexual. (Well, provided it's males straying over the line, heterosexually; I'm not at all sure that a heterosexual female politician could skate by.) But as far as Republicans are concerned, "don't ask, don't tell" isn't just for soldiers anymore; senators should lose their jobs, too.

The other rule is that what really matters is your state's governor party registration. Louisiana's governor is a D, so if Vitter resigned, she'd appoint a Democrat. Idaho's is an R, so if Craig gets forced out, the GOP gets another, less unsavory Republican. So when Arizona's John McCain calls for Craig's resignation, he isn't just principled, he's being politically expedient, too. It's a candy mint, and a breath mint!

As Scott Lemieux wrote, "family values" politics is all about making yourself feel virtuous by imposing burdens on other people. When Arizona banned abortion, the affluent always could visit California for safe, legal procedures. Police don't stop people for driving-while-white. And the supply of gay voters willing to support Republicans, after being bludgeoned repeatedly by GOP base-whipping, is dwindling to the same numbers as Jewish Republicans, so they're now "other people" too. (GOP Jews and gays share another attribute; while statistically, they're less than rounding error, apparently every single one either has a blog or writes letters to the editor.)

I once had a lengthy phone conversation with a Jewish Republican who supported displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings, because after all we're a Judeo-Christian nation and the Commandments are the foundation of our democracy, or something like that. Of course, it wasn't clear which of the several versions she wanted displayed, and of course she claimed that the people fighting to display the commandments had absolutely no religious intent.

But the fun part was my caller's personal history included a divorce and exceedingly rapid second marriage to the similarly-recently-divorced husband next door, which violated one of the Ten. (She could have gotten off on a technicality, because most translations say you're not supposed to covet your neighbor's wife, but even if it worked, her second husband couldn't use that semantic defense.)

For all I know, she's much happier now, her first husband granted the divorce willingly, and all concerned now get along just peachy. But here was somebody who insisted that we needed to install in public buildings, as a foundational moral document which all Americans needed to obey, something that she had happily violated in her own life.

Displaying the Ten Commandments was important to her, but the Commandments themselves could be violated in her own life. She could justify her own behavior -- can't we all? But she believed we had to use the power of the state to impose family values on other people who may not be as nice, or as principled, as she thought she was. It's the Eleventh Commandment: Exceptions for me, but not for thee!

It's a mindset that so enjoys controlling other people that shame never entered the equation. Walking into a public building with a display of the Commandments wouldn't be any reproach to her -- the actual words didn't apply to her, she rated an exception. The Commandments, and family values? Those are for all those "other people" whom we have to watch and mind.

Sen. Larry Craig, proud sponsor of "don't ask, don't tell," just found out that he's "other people" too.