Topic: General

New at Cato Unbound: Dark Days for Small Government

Today in Cato Unbound, Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with David Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

Stay tuned! Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam will comment Friday, and Cato’s David Boaz will round out the replies to Frum with an essay on Monday.

Beyond Parody

The Nanny State grows too bizarre for satire.

Here’s The Onion in 1998:

According to a controversial Federal Trade Commission report released Tuesday, food manufacturer Hostess may have intentionally marketed “Twinkies”—a dangerous snack cake linked to obesity and hyperactivity—to minors.

There is substantial evidence supporting the claim that, for decades, Hostess has carried out an aggressive marketing campaign with the goal of promoting Twinkie use among underage consumers,” the FTC report read. “Our nation’s children have been targeted for the consumption of these fattening, unwholesome cakes at a vulnerable age, before they are old enough to make responsible decisions about health and nutrition. “The report also stated that “as a result of Hostess’ targeting of minors, millions of young bodies have been exposed to potentially harmful substances such as fat, sugar, cholesterol, polysorbate 60, calcium sulfate, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and caramel color.”

Among the questionable Hostess marketing tactics the FTC report cites: positioning Twinkies billboards in the direct view of schoolyards, airing Twinkies ads on Saturday-morning TV and, most notably, developing and aggressively promoting “Twinkie The Kid,” a smiling, lariat-wielding cowboy cartoon mascot shaped like a Hostess Twinkie.

Believe it or not, here’s an actual press release from the FTC, issued yesterday:

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services today released a report recommending concrete steps that industry can take to change their marketing and other practices to make progress against childhood obesity.

[…]

“Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity,” said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. “The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements.”

This isn’t the first time the Nanny State has caught up to an Onion parody. See here, for example. Or here. Or here.

For an explanation why SpongeBob Squarepants isn’t to blame for childhood obesity, check here.

Medicare

On May 2, I attended an American Enterprise Institute symposium on Medicare’s financial outlook. That outlook is awful.

I offered the Stroke of a Pen solution of raising the age of eligibility going forward. In Crisis of Abundance, I explain in more detail how to phase out Medicare.

This idea was ridiculed by the panel. For the most part the panel reminded me of an old business cartoon with the caption, “I don’t have a solution, but I really admire your problem.”

However, the most likely alternative to cutting benefits is “cost control,” meaning price controls and/or rationing. The audience and the panel seemed much more receptive to cost control than to cutting benefits. Maybe the AEI is getting ready to play a role in the Hillary Clinton administration.

One of those who emphatically resisted cutting benefits was Mark McClellan, the Medicare czar. He was so gung-ho about Medicare’s quality initiatives that during the Q&A I asked him whether Medicare should take over health care for everyone. Instead of saying, “No,” he gave a political answer about how Medicare’s new initiatives were a “partnership” with the private sector.

Public-private partnerships are problematic, in my view. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and private-public partnerships absolutely corrupt the private sector.

We have reached the point in health care policy where government is like the ten-year-old boy who starts fires so that he can be lauded as a hero for helping to put them out. Massachusetts gives huge hospital subsidies for “uncompensated care”—the subsidies apparently exceed the cost of care, because one of the obstacles to the Massachusetts reform is that hospitals are worried that they will lose money. Anyway, these subsidies, along with dysfunctional insurance regulations, favor uninsured free riders, causing the fire that needs to be put out with health insurance mandates.

McClellan lauded the Massachusetts reforms.

Depends on What the Meaning of “Universal” Is

Ezra Klein thinks some countries have achieved universal health coverage. Ramesh Ponnuru demurs: “If you can’t get an operation because your country’s national health insurance system has you on a long waiting list, in what sense have you enjoyed ‘universal coverage’?” Klein replies by defining away the problem: “waiting for an elective procedure – no country I know of has waiting lists for emergency procedures – that you then receive doesn’t contravene the terms of health coverage at all.” Jonathan Cohn adds: “some countries with universal coverage don’t seem to have waiting lists at all,” notably France and Germany. Who’s right?

The evidence seems to lean toward Ponnuru’s position. A few items:

  1. Canada’s Supreme Court wrote in a case last year: “The evidence shows that, in the case of certain surgical procedures, the delays that are the necessary result of waiting lists increase the patient’s risk of mortality or the risk that his or her injuries will become irreparable. The evidence also shows that many patients on non-urgent waiting lists are in pain and cannot fully enjoy any real quality of life.” So the issue isn’t just about elective or unnecessary medical care, or just about mortality risk. (Next Monday, the Cato Institute will release a study by the doctor who litigated that case.)
  2. In a 2004 poll conducted by the Stockholm Network, residents of France and Germany expressed the least dissatisfaction with treatment delays (out of eight European nations surveyed). Nonetheless, the French and Germans who were dissatisfied with their health care system’s waiting times outnumbered those who were satisfied (50 percent and 55 percent dissatisfied, respectively). So there may be a problem in those countries, even if the authorities do not measure it. (Perhaps we could approach the uninsured the way that France and Germany approach waiting times, and just stop counting them.)
  3. There are indications that people who actually get sick in the U.S. fare better than in nations with “universal” coverage. Women who get breast cancer in Germany are slightly more likely to die of it than breast cancer victims in the U.S. (31 percent vs. 25 percent). For prostate cancer, you are twice as likely to die of it in Germany as in the U.S. (44 percent vs. 19 percent). More such data can be found here and here. If that’s the case, the appeal of “universal” coverage fades.

Can we achieve “universal” coverage? If we could, would it be better than what we have? If it would, would it be worth the cost of a tax burden like that of France? These are open questions, and they are for proponents of universal coverage to answer.

As they try to answer that question, I recommend Crisis of Abundance, a short Cato Institute book by econo-blogger Arnold Kling.

Sometimes, Governments Lie

Year after year, federal officials speak of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds as if they were real.  Yesterday, the government announced that the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2040 and that the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in 2018 – projections that the media dutifully reported

But those dates are meaningless, because there are no assets for these “trust funds” to exhaust.  The Bush administration wrote in its FY2007 budget proposal:

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures—but only in a bookkeeping sense. These funds…are not assets…that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits…When trust fund holdings are redeemed to pay benefits, Treasury will have to finance the expenditure in the same way as any other Federal expenditure: out of current receipts, by borrowing from the public, or by reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large trust fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, increase the Government’s ability to pay benefits.

This is similar to language in the Clinton administration’s FY2000 budget, which noted that the size of the trust fund “does not…have any impact on the Government’s ability to pay benefits” (emphasis added).

I offer the following proposition:

  • If the government knows that there are no assets in the Social Security and Medicare “trust funds,” and yet projects the interest earned on those non-assets and the date on which those non-assets will be exhausted, then the government is lying. 

If that’s the case, then these annual trustees reports constitute an institutionalized, ritualistic lie.  Also ritualistic is the media’s uncritical repetition of the lie.

Florida Senate Ties its Own Straightjacket

The Florida Senate yesterday killed, by one vote, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have allowed it to pass school choice legislation. Back in January, the state supreme court fitted the legislature with an education policy straightjacket. It claimed, simply because the state constitution requires the existence of a uniform public school system, that legislators are forbidden to create alternative systems – including, but not necessarily limited to, school choice programs. 

Rather than undoing this bit of judicial overreach, the Senate decided to tie the straightjacket snugly on itself – killing constitutional amendment language that would have allowed it to once again do its job on education policy. 

This leaves Florida’s lawmakers – and more importantly its students – stuck with the “uniform” public school system that has been failing them for decades. The state has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, according to two independent assessments, and both its mathematics and verbal SAT scores are below the national average. In fact, even Floridian students whose first language is English score 15 points below the national average for such students on the verbal portion of the SAT. 

That’s the system to which the Senate and the judiciary have consigned Sunshine State schoolchildren. 

It’s a sad day for Florida. 

Fourteen other states have public school “uniformity clauses” much like Florida’s so stay tuned to this issue. 

For more on the run-up to this vote, see The American Spectator.

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