The Big Government-Big Business Health Care Plan

Ross Douthat at the New York Times, with help from Reihan Salam and Tim Carney, explains how the Senate health care bill can be both a government takeover and a huge subsidy to the insurance industry:

We’ve achieved an unusual left-right convergence in the health care debate: Both conservatives and liberals are attacking the current version of reform as an egregious giveaway to the insurance industry. (Both sides sound an awful lot like Tim Carney, in other words.) Suddenly, it’s hard to tell the difference between the right’s Yuval Levin (“The bill is basically a massive subsidy to the insurers — it is not a reform of the system”) and the left’s Markos “Daily Kos” Moulitsas (“it’s unconscionable to force people to buy a product from a private insurer that enjoys sanctioned monopoly status”).

Ed Kilgore argues that the two sides’s concerns, while superficially similar, are actually contradictory:

… on a widening range of issues, Obama’s critics to the right say he’s engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can’t both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance.

He’s right about the gulf between the critics’ prescriptions, but I think he’s wrong about the incompability of their critiques. Here’s Reihan, explaining why:

Actually, it is entirely possible for both sets of critics to be correct. The concern from the right isn’t that the Obama approach will literally nationalize for-profit health insurers. Rather, it is that for-profit health insurers will continue evolving into heavily subsidized firms that function as public utilities, and that seek advantage by gaming the political process. Profits, including profits governed by medical loss ratios, can and will then be cycled into political action, which leads to the anxiety concerning a “corporate takeover of the public sector.” Again, progressives don’t literally believe that such a takeover is happening. Instead, they believe, rightly, that subsidies without effective cost containment represent a massive windfall for the private insurance sector, including non-profit insurers that generate salaries for large numbers of politically active middle and upper middle class professionals.

So yes, Obama does not intend to nationalize the private insurance industry and then turn around and auction off the new nationalized health agency to Rupert Murdoch or Monsanto. But the anxieties of critics on the left and right are, to italicize for a moment, perfectly compatible.

The point is that the more intertwined industry and government become, the harder it is to discern who’s “taking over” whom — and the less it matters, because the taxpayer is taking it on the chin either way. Or to put it another way: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which …

Tim Carney will discuss his book, Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses, at a Cato Book Forum on January 12.