Tag: benefits

Support for the Eternal Federal Welfare State Is Bipartisan

George Will makes a good point in his latest column: Democrats maintain a peculiar “conviction that whatever government programs exist should forever exist because they always have existed.” Will’s observation centers around the shameless Democratic attacks on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposal to reform Medicare and Medicaid.

According to Will, “Ryan’s plan would alter Medicare. But Medicare has existed in its current configuration for only 46 of the nation’s 235 years.” Actually, “current configuration” isn’t quite accurate. For example, Medicare’s prescription drug component added by Republicans, which Ryan voted for, went into effect only five years ago.

Regardless, I agree with Will that so-called “progressives” have a “constricted notion of the possibilities of progress”:

The hysteria and hyperbole about Ryan’s plan arise, in part, from a poverty of today’s liberal imagination, an inability to think beyond the straight-line continuation of programs from the second and third quarters of the last century. It is odd that “progressives,” as liberals now wish to be called, have such a constricted notion of the possibilities of progress.

Yes, Ryan’s plan displays “imagination” and I would add that it took political guts to suggest the reforms knowing that the left would nail him to the cross. However, let’s not forget that Ryan’s plan would also further cement these twin pillars of the federal welfare state. For all the silly accusations that Ryan is proposing to “privatize” Medicare, his plan repeatedly states that his aim is to “save” it:

Letting government break its promises to current seniors and to future generations is unacceptable. The reforms outlined in this budget protect and preserve Medicare for those in and near retirement, while saving and strengthening this critical program so that future generations can count on it to be there when they retire.

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I understand Ryan’s assurance to “those in and near retirement” that Medicare as they know it won’t be touched. However, I can’t square Ryan’s reference at the outset of his plan to the “timeless principles of American government enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – liberty, limited government, and equality under the rule of law” with his intention to strengthen “this critical program so that future generations can count on it be there when they retire.”

Now that Ryan’s plan has taken its inevitable beating from demagoguing Democrats, the GOP appears to be upping the “save Medicare for future generations” rhetoric.

Here’s tea party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) as reported by Politico:

‘I understand the benefits that Medicare brings to America. It should be a part of our country,’ Rubio added. ‘I want Medicare to exist in a way that is unchanged for people that are in Medicare now. I want Medicare to exist when I retire. I want Medicare to exist when my children retire. And I don’t want Medicare to bankrupt itself for our country. And Medicare, as it’s currently structured, will go bankrupt.’

If that’s what Rubio, Ryan, and the rest of the congressional Republicans desire, then thank you for being honest. But please stop wrapping the intention to maintain for eternity a gigantic federal welfare state in the mantle of individual liberty, limited government, and the Constitution.

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Furor over Government Employees

Concern about the pay, benefits, and performance of government employees seems to be growing. Chris Edwards’s articles on how government pay is outpacing private-sector pay have generated media attention, cartoons, and angry rebuttals from the head of the federal Office of Personnel Management. Steven Greenhut has a new book, Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, and is writing lots of newspaper articles on the high costs of government unions, also the topic of a recent Cato Policy Analysis. New Jersey unions are not finding much sympathy as they try to hold on to their raises, benefits, pensions, and work rules in the face of Gov. Chris Christie’s attempt to cut the budget. Liberal journalist Mickey Kaus is running for the U.S. Senate, trying to warn California’s voters and the Democratic Party about the excessive power and destructive influence of public employee unions.

And now Saturday Night Live. The zeitgeist-riding comedy show had a truly harsh sketch this weekend about the “Public Employee of the Year Awards.” It touched every element of popular resentment toward government workers: “people with government jobs are just like workers everywhere – except for the lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions, and full medical coverage with no deductibles, office visit fees, or copayments” – “retirement on full disability” by an obviously young and healthy worker – “Surliest and Least Cooperative State Employee” – “3200 hours [a year] on the job, all of it overtime” – New York school janitors living in Florida – employees with two current jobs and full disability – an entire workday at the DMV without serving a single customer – no-work contracts –  surprisingly early closings – and “he’s on break.”

Time for unions to start worrying?

AP: Obama Misleads Voters about ObamaCare’s Effects on Premiums

The Associated Press reports:

Buyers, beware: President Barack Obama says his health care overhaul will lower premiums by double digits, but check the fine print…

The [Congressional Budget Office] concluded that premiums for people buying their own coverage would go up by an average of 10 percent to 13 percent, compared with the levels they’d reach without the legislation…

“People are likely to not buy the same low-value policies they are buying now,” said health economist Len Nichols of George Mason University. “If they did buy the same value plans … the premium would be lower than it is now. This makes the White House statement true. But is it possibly misleading for some people? Sure.”

Nichols’ comments are also misleading – which makes the president’s statement not just misleading but untrue.

Under ObamaCare, people would not have the option to buy the same low-cost plans they do today.  That’s the whole problem: under an individual mandate, everybody must purchase the minimum level of coverage specified by the government.  That minimum benefits package would be more expensive than the coverage chosen by most people in the individual market.  Their premiums would rise because ObamaCare would take away their right to choose a more economical policy.

Note also that the CBO predicts premiums would rise by an average of 10-13 percent in the individual market.  Consumers who currently purchase the most economic policies would see larger premium increases.

Finally, the Obama plan would also force millions of uninsured Americans to purchase health insurance at premiums higher than current-law premium levels, which they have already rejected as being too high.  Their premium expenditures would rise from $0 to thousands of dollars.  Yet the CBO counts that implicit tax as reducing average premiums, because those consumers are generally healthier-than-average.  Only in Washington is a tax counted as a savings.

What Is ‘Meaningful’ Health Insurance? Who Decides?’

Noting that premium increases, such as Anthem’s proposed 39-percent hike in California, have caused individuals and employers to purchase less coverage, Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman writes:

Rising health care costs and insurance company practices are leading not just to more expensive premiums, but to skimpier, less comprehensive coverage as well; slowly redefining what we have known as health insurance. To be sure, some economists argue that this is precisely what should happen…But this is not likely how regular people see it. Appropriate cost sharing is one thing, but we may be reaching the point in the individual market where the policies many people have simply cannot be considered meaningful coverage.

Of course, this is the whole idea behind President Obama’s proposed tax on high-cost health plans: higher prices will cause people to purchase less coverage, which will temper health care spending.

But whether Altman is correct depends on what the meaning of “meaningful” is.  When individuals pare back the amount of insurance they purchase, they are revealing what they consider to be meaningful coverage.  (The same is true when employers opt for less-comprehensive coverage, though employers’ revealed preferences are obviously a poor proxy for what their workers value.)

If Altman thinks the coverage that individuals are choosing “cannot be considered meaningful coverage” (note the passive voice), he is implicitly stating that individuals are not the best judges of their own welfare.  And the only way to devise an alternative definition of meaningful coverage is through the political process.

It is difficult to argue that the political process does a better job of selecting meaningful coverage.  That process forces many consumers to purchase coverage that they don’t find meaningful (e.g., chiropractic, acupuncture, circumcision), that they find offensive (e.g., abortion, contraception, in-vitro fertilization), or for treatments that are downright harmful (e.g., high-dose chemotherapy combined with autologous bone-marrow transplant for late-stage breast cancer).

Letting consumers reveal their preferences is possibly the worst way to define “meaningful coverage.”  Except for all the others.

A Clash of Worldviews on Free Trade

If you want to witness the clash of two worldviews on trade, check out the online debate I’m having with Ian Fletcher of the U.S. Business and Industry Council. A self-described protectionist, Fletcher has written a new book with the unambiguous title, Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace it and Why. In the opposite corner, I argue for eliminating barriers to trade, drawing on my own recent book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.

The debate is being hosted by the International Economic Law and Policy Blog. We’ve already filed two 600-word posts each, with a third to come at the end of this week and concluding arguments early next week.

Marriage, Private and Public

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just get the state out of the marriage business? Perhaps. Marriage is fundamentally private, after all. It’s a matter for families, churches, and couples to decide for themselves.

Yet state recognition of marriage often acts to keep the government out of private life, to ensure family stability, and to give regular, orderly rules for all those times when, despite our best efforts, family and state still collide. Here are just a few of the things that the civil side of marriage does:

  • If you’re happily married and you have children, you don’t have to worry for a moment about child custody law. Your children are yours to raise jointly, whether they are biological or adoptive.
  • If you’re married and you die without a will, your spouse typically gets at least a share of your estate. You don’t have to do anything special for this to happen. It’s automatic, and I think this probably strikes most people as fair.
  • If you’re married, you don’t need to do anything special to be able to make medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse. It’s presumed that you are competent to do this.
  • You can sponsor your foreign spouse for U.S. citizenship.
  • You can sue for wrongful death of a spouse.
  • You can collect a spouse’s Social Security benefits.
  • You can often keep joint personal finances without worrying that your spouse will bankrupt you.

Depending on where you live, some of these protections can be won outside of marriage, if you’re willing to go to a lawyer and spend a few hundred bucks. Others, like the last four, can’t be had without either a marriage or a blood relationship.

State recognition of marriage protects families, often from the state itself. If the state got out of the marriage business, the state would be a lot more in all of our private lives, judging, inspecting, regulating, forbidding, taxing, redistributing, and all the rest. Much of the state part of marriage is really a protection against the state.

All of this is a lead-up to saying congratulations to the same-sex couples who will now be able to marry in Washington, DC. Perhaps even more than other types of marriages, same-sex marriages need these protections. (Some, like sponsoring an immigrant or collecting Social Security, may have to wait for federal law to catch up.)

On the whole, same-sex marriage means that gays’ and lesbians’ private lives can stay private. It gives them a protection against the government, which has too often been used against them. It means that gays and lesbians can be treated the same as any other group of citizens. And it means that their basic right to be left alone is finally being honored.

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