Monday, September 21, 2009

What are we debating?

During the Obama-thon that occurred yesterday on the Sunday morning news shows, I caught the President's performance/interview on This Week (see the video here). Most interesting to me was this quote from the President:

“Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right,” he told ABC News. “And I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.”

The interesting aspect of this quote was, as I spoke about in my last post, the way the President defines those who oppose his policies. He states that our fundamental concern is "...whether government can do anything right..." and that our distrust of all things government is the reason for the heated opposition.

This is a brilliant, if dishonest, political maneuver. By defining the opposition's anger as a mistrust of all government he at once makes the opposition seem unreasonable and lowers his standard of proof. The clear antidote to this mistrust is to scream at the top of your lungs about the things government has done well and, through analogy, suggest that government can tackle this problem too. At the end of the day, it seems to the average viewer that the President is being reasonable and it is the opposition who is being ludicrous.

However, things aren't always as they seem. Importantly, there are two difficulties with this vision of the debate: (a) it buys the President's viewpoint without question and (b) it ignores the history of government involvement with Healthcare and the way that these plans have been sold. So that said, we need ponder what we are really debating and ask, can we trust how the administration is selling Healthcare reform?

What are we really debating?

Contrary to the President's view, I think the fundamental question the opposition asks is not "whether government can do anything right," but rather, "what can government do well?"  The opposition to Obama's healthcare plan is not hell bent on anti-government protest simply for the sake of anti-government protest. Rather, the vast majority of us are concerned because the government does not have an encouraging history of reforming, performing or regulating healthcare in tension with economic realities (see this tragic example of a Federally run hospital).

This isn't to say that government - and the Federal government in particular - is bad at everything. It is simply to suggest that the government is not well suited to being a healthcare provider (for these reasons). The Federal government certainly can do somethings that will improve the current situation.  For instance, eliminating waste and fraud in Medicare, pressuring states to eliminate protections of the monopolized insurance agencies and even enacting consumer protections on insurance advertisements seem to be good ideas.  If you told most conservatives about these ideas, they would agree to with them (most people are in favor of saving money, more competition and better information). The difficulty that Conservatives have is when the Federal government begins to mandate behavior for all, eliminate insurance options, and use Federal monies to subsidize poor alternatives and risky options (all of these are in the present Obama proposal). 

In essence, this isn't a debate about whether government can do anything.  Rather, it is a debate about what government should be doing.  By suggesting otherwise the President is politically manipulating the conversation and falsely portraying the opposition as unreasonable.

So, why not have a debate about what government should be doing? Why not actually address the oppositions concerns and talk candidly about the role of government in our lives?  Perhaps because when people recognize the full scope of this government oriented plan, they get a little queasy.

Can we trust what the Administration is saying about Healthcare?

The President has taken enormous freedoms with the concept of "truth" in trying to sell healthcare, including most recently yesterdays dubious assertion that an "excise tax" is not a "tax". However, the politics of telling people what they want to hear and dealing with the consequences later is nothing new. Interestingly, people have misrepresented figures before in hopes of passing monumental Healthcare reform.

LBJ suppressed the true costs of Medicare in order to get the program passed through the Senate.  While pretending to be open and honest about what the program would cost, he duped the Senate into passing what is arguably the second most burdensome tax on American workers.  As an expert on the presidency of LBJ opines:

"We believe, after looking at the evidence, my co-author [David Blumenthal] and I, that if the true cost of Medicare had been known — if Johnson hadn't basically hidden them — the program would never have passed..."
Today, we have the assessments of the CBO to estimate how costly plans will be.  Unfortunately, the government's projections are rarely reliable.  It's most recent projection - Cash for Clunkers - was off by only 100% (estimating the program would last twice as long as it actually did).  The consequences of this mistaken projection are still being felt.

This isn't necessarily to say that there is malfeasance behind these projections.  There probably isn't.  It is to say that projections are just that: projections.  Like any other unknown, we should not be making huge policy decisions based on dubious numbers.

The bottom line here: based on political practice and recent history, we cannot trust the numbers coming out of Washington. 

To Conclude

What should reasonable people attend to? I would advocate common sense. 

What has the Federal government done well in the past? Then, let's let them continue to do that.  
What has Federal government done poorly in the past? Then, let's keep them from fouling it up again.

Arguing for a plan within this framework is reasonable, but the President insists on distorting the debate. Nor does the Obama plan fall within these common sense boundaries.  It imposes unnecessary government expenditures and control over the lives of average Americans in the vain hope that the Federal government can become instantly better at things it has routinely failed to do well.  

For this simple reason, common sense conservatives are opposed to the President's plan and refused to be duped by political rhetoric and "cunning". My only hope is that Senator Snowe and other Republicans will continue to be wary of the President's political gamesmanship. (Encourage Sen. Snowe to stand fast against the President's plan by calling her today).

Reform should be reform minded and a policy discussion should be reasonable and honest.  The President has called for this, now if he could only live up to his own expectations.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Defining the "radical" element.

There are always outliers. These outliers are usually termed "radicals" for political purposes. Frequently, however, the number of outliers or "radicals" depends on how you define "normal".

Speaker Pelosi is afraid that people's anger Obama's healthcare proposal might turn into violence. Really? The 9/12 TEA Party in Washington DC was among the most tame crowds that anyone has ever seen. Is this among the scare tactics about healthcare that President Obama said he wouldn't tolerate? Sounds an awful lot to me like someone is trying to define common protest as a burgeoning "radical" movement.

Former President Carter suggested earlier this week that opposition to President Obama is primarily motivated by racism. The reasoning here is something akin to the following:
  1. People are extremely upset over this reckless deficit spending.
  2. People couldn't possibly be impassioned about money.
  3. We have a African-American President.
  4. Back in my day (1970's), the only thing people were passionate about was race.
  5. Therefore, this impassioned protest can only be about racist hatred for an African-American President.
This is a textbook attempt to define reasonable protest against foolhardy policy as "radical".

Finally, Gov. Pawlenty of Minnesota said this yesterday:
This is my message: Stop spending the country back to bankruptcy... and maybe the next time you talk to a group of young people you should apologize for the debt you are putting on their shoulders...

(Tim Pawlenty pictured at left).

A spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee replied:
It looks like Tim Pawlenty isn't even going to offer the pretense of being anything but an extreme right wing radical anymore...
Radical? Really? Calling for responsible spending is now a radical proposition!?!

President Obama is failing to convince people that condensing Federal control over healthcare is a good thing. When you cannot win the debate, it is common to attack the people who oppose you. You attempt to define the opposition and try to frame them as unreasonable. You define "normal" as the people who agree with you. You call anyone who disagrees with you "violent", "racist" and "radical".

It may not be a co-ordinated effort. It may not be obvious to many. However, the Democrats are desperate. They control the House and Senate. They control the White House. They cannot, however, control what everyday people think about spending $900,000,000,000.00 when the country is flat broke. This frustration that we are not all buying into a utopia where money is irrelevant and common sense is non-existent has led to this desperation. This desperation has fermented into an attempt to define who and what people are.

How did the party of hope and change become demeaning and accusatory?

Of course, the real shame goes beyond Democrats calling people names on the political playground. The real consequence of these efforts is that they lessen peoples awareness of what "violence" really is. Falsely pulling the race card lessens peoples perception of actual racism. Arrogantly demeaning the opposition as "radical" makes people ambivalent to what normalcy might be.

The danger, for everyone, is that this political "wolf calling" will disguise the true wolves in our society.

Wouldn't it be better for everyone if we just stuck to the facts and had a discussion based on policy rather than name calling?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Back at it (again).

It has been a while. I worked abroad over the summer and, aside from learning that I really do not appreciate the European attitude towards labor, I also was pretty busy working on numerous projects (wedding, law school, legal periodicals, etc.) However, as this is typically a political blog I will focus on the issue at hand: healthcare reform.

Just as I am back at "it" again, so to is President Obama (again). Last night I listened to one of the most hypocritical and arrogant speeches in quite some time. However, rather than "misrepresenting" the President or spewing ad hominem verbiage, I will compose this post from the President's own words, with my comments after key quotes:
"...[W]e have also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government. Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics."
Mark this down as a minor breakthrough, but I am with President Obama on this one, though probably not in the way he thinks. We should all be about talking through these issues and not relying on stereotypical assertions about political parties. We should have a debate about what will work, rather than simply asserting that others either are (a) ignorant or (b) malevolent. So in this understanding, lets proceed.
"If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out."
Who is this "we" and how do I contact them if I think they are misrepresenting the truth? Do I report my friends and neighbors to the government as the White House encouraged earlier this year? Lacking the ear of the President, I must rely on a lowly blog post (hopefully someone notifies the White House). All this said, shall we apply the same standard to President Obama's own words? Let's call out the many misrepresentations in his speech last night:
"[I]f you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, Medicare, Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have. Let me repeat this: nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have."
This is simply President Obama being a shady lawyer. The key word he uses is require. The mandate to purchase health insurance obviously doesn't effect those that already have purchased health insurance. Just because individuals are not required to change does not mean that things will not change. Indeed, if reform is to work coverage will necessarily change (or else reform would be pointless). President Obama cannot have it both ways. He cannot assert that we are all part of this system together and then assert in the next breathe that changing the system will not change "the coverage or the doctor you have". This is the power of government, the ability to effect a citizens daily life without a citizen having any say in the matter. It is why we should be very wary of making systemic decisions, lest common citizens lose their voice. In any case, this statement seems like a clear misrepresentation.
"It's worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I've proposed tonight."
This seems like a pretty clear misrepresentation. Polling suggests that people only favor a public option if you laud the public option before you ask the question. If you ask people directly ("Do you favor a public option administered by the Federal government?"), the majority is opposed to the public option.
"They argue that these private companies can't fairly compete with the government. And they'd be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option. But they won't be."
The very essence of government healthcare is to offer the same services that insurance companies do at less cost. The reason this is deemed possible is because the Federal government is not concerned with profit, which means that they theoretically can offer services on the cheap. Insurance companies do need to earn a profit, which means that they are at an unfair disadvantage. Over time, people will move to the cheaper system leaving insurance companies without customers. For this very reason, instituting a public option is a means to an eventual end: a single payer system (a monopoly). This is not hyperbole or a scare tactic, it is just common sense economics. The bottom line: the public option doesn't need subsidies to compete unfairly, its very existence is unfair competition. Rather than promoting competition, the most natural end point would then be a single payer, Federally run healthcare system. While that might be a Liberal's dream, there are serious problems with that idea (notably, in the long run, costs increase and services decrease, just like all monopolies). More notably, for present purposes, is that President Obama knows this and is clearly misrepresenting the truth.
"[M]ost of this plan can be paid for by finding savings within the existing health care system – a system that is currently full of waste and abuse."
I have three comments on this statement:

(1) So what are we waiting for? Let's pass these reforms - as everyone is in favor of saving money - and while we saving this money, we can discuss how to spend it (maybe pay off some of that debt we owe China). Why must this idea wait for a comprehensive package?

(2) The reason that we don't pass these reforms now is that it is impossible to know how much money we might save due to cutting down on "waste and abuse". It is a whole lot easier to promise and rely on "projected" cost savings than wait and spend money that actually proves itself available. An interesting facet to this is that in the last year there has been rampant criticism of AIG for relying on projections for their business model. However, we are supposed to believe the projections touted by the Federal government? Historical evidence suggests that the Federal government is not so good at "projections" (see Medicare, Social Security and, most recently, Cash for Clunkers).

(3) Speaking of "projections" how did the cost of this plan suddenly decrease from $1.3 Trillion, the CBO estimate, to $900 Billion, the amount the President cited last night? That seems a little strange, almost like the President is throwing out figures that he figures people won't fact check. Fact check this: You cannot expand health insurance for all and spend less money. Someone will pay for it and, in my opinion, it is a strong bet that it will be the American taxpayer. Stating that we have everything for practically nothing is not just a misrepresentation, it is an impossibility.
"[T]he plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years – less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration."
Is President Obama asserting that two wrongs make a right? Here is his argument in a nutshell: President Bush spent a ton of money on things I considered a bad idea, so I should be able to spend a ton of money on things you consider a bad idea. Is this supposed to convince us? I can see the plotting going on in the White House now, "Yep, we will point to the things they hate and use that hatred to justify our plan." Are we really going to fall for that? Are we still convinced that this is all about "hope" and "change"? This method of argument is simply a political tactic. The President is playing politics rather than having a reasonable debate.
"Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true."
Last, but certainly not least: People. Will. Die. How is this not a scare tactic? How is this seeking a rational conversation about healthcare. Conservatives come to the table, ready to talk about what needs to be done and the response of President Obama is, "unless you agree to my plan, people will die." Is this reasonable? Is this honest? Within the same speech the President has contradicted himself. He calls for a debate without scare tactics and then ends the conversation with a scare tactic!

There are very reasonable, rational and, I would argue, far better alternatives to the President's plan. Unfortunately, the President doesn't seem willing to talk. On one hand he promises conversations, compromise and inclusion. He proclaims that all opinions are on the table. On the other hand, he is the sole arbiter of what will work and anyone who disagrees will be accused of allowing more people to die.

Last night we learned two important things. First, we learned that President Obama is willing to sell the American people a bill of goods. He called for people to stop misrepresenting the truth and then set about misrepresenting numerous facts (as we've just seen). Second, we have learned (again) that "hope" and "change" are merely rhetoric. President Obama creates the rules for everyone else (no misrepresentations, no false promises, no scare tactics) and then decides the rules simply do not apply to him (misrepresentations, impossible promises and threatening that people will die if his plan is not adopted).

Ready for a reasonable and rational debate? Respond below!


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