No, It Wasn’t Joe Biden

But I couldn’t help thinking of him when I read this Washington Post headline:

Ex-Sailor Guilty of Pretending to Be an Admiral
Delaware Man Gave Speech to Vietnamese American Group in Va.

And I was transported back to 1987, when Biden withdrew from the presidential race after appropriating the details of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock’s life in his speeches, falsely claiming to have three college degrees, and boasting of a much higher rank in his law school class than he actually achieved.

I remembered a purported “Joe Biden resume” that circulated widely back in 1987. Being from prehistoric days, alas, it’s not on the World Wide Web, so I have to recall it from memory. But as I recall, in standard resume fashion it recounted Biden’s achievements in life: NCAA basketball championship, Heisman Trophy, top of his law school class, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nobel Prize in physics, Pulitzer Price for literature, Oscar, chief justice of the United States, and so on.

Of course, if he actually had all those accomplishments, Sarah Palin would dismiss him as an elitist.

Joe Klein on Obama, McCain & Health Care

In a recap of the second McCain-Obama debate, Joe Klein offers his thoughts on the role of government generally and in health care in particular.  Excerpts and comments follow:

Obama began his response with a simple declarative sentence: “I believe that health care is a right for every American.”

Health care is a bundle of goods and services.  Treat health care like a “right,” and watch it disappear

The rest of his answer could be used as a template for how to deal with a complex issue in a town-hall debate. He began with a personal story: his mother, dying of cancer at age 53, having to fight her insurance company, trying to prove that her disease had not been a pre-existing condition.

Obama has said his mother ”had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs.”  Neither candidate can claim that their health plan would have saved her life.  But McCain can claim that the federal government created an employer-based health insurance system that routinely strips people of coverage right before and right after they get sick.  In its attacks on McCain’s health-insurance tax credit, I haven’t once heard the Obama campaign acknowledge that McCain’s plan would have spared Obama’s mother that deathbed worry.

He broadened that into a general proposition about the proper role of government: “It is absolutely true that I think it is important for government to crack down on insurance companies that are cheating their customers.”

Government should crack down on cheats.  If an insurance company commits fraud or breaches its contracts, let ‘em have it.  One senses that Obama means something else, perhaps that insurance companies “cheat” any time they deny coverage for anything?  Maybe because he thinks health care is a right? 

And finally, he transformed the issue into a metaphor for the entire campaign: “That is a fundamental difference that I have with Senator McCain. He believes in deregulation in every circumstance. That’s what we’ve been going through for the last eight years. It hasn’t worked, and we need fundamental change.”

Regarding Obama’s silly attacks on McCain’s proposal to deregulate health insurance, click here.

Obama’s gamble is that the public — worried at the beginning of the campaign, terrified now — is ready for greater government support and regulation of the health-insurance system. That assumption has always been a sure loser in American politics. Republicans have perpetually and successfully waved the bloody flag of “socialized medicine.”  But the employer-provided-health-care system is fraying, costs to average families are rising, and almost everyone has a friend with a horror story.

Indeed.  If only Klein and the Republicans recognized that socialized medicine is the root cause of those horror stories.

McCain’s plan is a half-baked vestige of Reagan-era ideology: it tilts the incentives away from employer-provided health insurance and assumes that people will act in their enlightened self-interest if they are thrust out into a free market. That’s absolutely true when it comes to buying refrigerators. But health insurance is complicated and scary; most people don’t have the time or expertise necessary to make wise choices.

Health insurance is complicated; illness is scary.  It would be nice if health insurers won customers by making health insurance simple and taking away patients’ fears of illness and financial ruin (rather than focusing on employers’ fears of absenteeism and rising labor costs).  For that, the individual customer has to control the money.

They rely on their employers to make sure they’re getting a good deal — and to fight for them if the insurance companies try to cheat them. And with many employers slouching away from that responsibility, the public seems ready to turn to the government for protection. In a collapsing economy, government regulation — forcing insurers to cover everyone at reasonable rates — sounds more comforting than stultifying.

Employers are shirking – but the government won’t?  Even when Obama gives them a jillion more things to do than enforce contracts and prosecute fraud?  And reasonable rates??  Does Klein know nothing about Medicare?

Shed No Tears for State Government Employees

The Pew Center on the States maintains an online news service called, which recently ran an article on the burgeoning plight of state government employees in the current economic downturn.

From Stateline:

But with the economy in a doldrums — only three years after states had emerged from the last recession — the hiring and salary freezes and benefit cuts that occurred earlier this decade are making a comeback as states struggle to meet their budgets.

The most galling aspect of this statement is the fact that it contradicts the Pew Center on the State’s own recent research.

From the Pew report:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when half the states’ pension plans were fully funded, many states reacted by increasing benefits…Legislatures responded in 1999 and 2000 by shortening vesting periods, increasing the multipliers used in determining benefit amounts, decreasing the age at which employees could receive full retirement benefits and shortening the years of service needed to qualify.

According to the same report, “…public sector employees are far more likely to receive retirement benefits—and the gulf between private and public sectors continues to grow.”  Pew found that (1) 90% of government employees have a defined benefit compared versus 20% in the private sector; (2) the median pension in 2005 was $17,640 (public) versus $7,692 (private); and (3) 82% of government employees have a retiree health care benefit compared with only 33% in the private sector.

Moreover, future state and local government employee benefit obligations are a ticking time-bomb for taxpayers.  See previous Cato work on this topic here, here, and here.  The Stateline article also says that state government salaries compare unfavorably with the private sector.  Cato has already pointed out that this isn’t necessarily the case either (see here).

My own experience in state government led me to conclude that much of it amounts to one big “jobs program.”  The truth is the typical state employee faces a relatively shorter work day, more generous benefits, and absurd job protections.  I would contend that one of the most dangerous places on the planet is a state employee parking garage at closing time, which in my state is 4:30 pm following a 7 1/2 hour workday.

Federal Student Aid: Our Disaster in Microcosm

I should have posted this yesterday, but was busy with other things, including a terrific discussion about higher education featuring Charles Murray, author of the new book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, and St. John’s College, Annapolis, President Christopher Nelson. (The video should be up shortly if you’re looking for a little enlightenment.)

Anyway, there was, as many in the edublogosphere have been lamenting, almost no mention of education in Tuesday night’s debate. There were, however, quick, periodic mentions from Senator Obama of the need to make college affordable, something he plans to do by throwing yet more cash into already overflowing federal student aid streams. Unfortunately, no education commentators looking to latch onto our current economic woes and be heard have made this clear connection (probably because they don’t want to): Federal student aid is our current, government-driven, economic disaster in microcosm. Washington has been buying middle-class votes with ever-greater loads of student aid for decades, but rather than making college more affordable it has wasted hundreds-of-billions of taxpayer dollars, driven tuition higher and higher into the stratosphere, and made colleges richer and fatter. It’s a perfect example of how government “help”–such as Fannie and Freddie buying sub-prime loans like they were plastics–only truly helps politicians get re-elected, special interests wealthier, and everyone else stuck with huge bills.

The Freedom to Pay for Only the Features You Need

After listening to the second McCain-Obama debate the other night, I saw an ad for that promised to reduce your auto insurance premiums by letting you pay for only the features that you need.  It was as though the Invisible Hand had just watched the candidates discussing health care, and quickly whipped off an ad to tell Obama how stupid is his plan to force people to buy insurance coverage that they don’t need.

All of which inspired an oped that appears in today’s New York Post.  An excerpt:

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to choose the features of your health policy, just like your auto insurance?

John McCain proposes to let you do just that, simply by letting you choose a plan available in another state. With the power to choose a policy regulated by a state with fewer mandated benefits and no community-rating laws, you could knock $1,000 off the price of a $7,000 plan.

This would boost coverage, too: A recent study by economists at the University of Minnesota suggests that McCain’s proposal could cover an added 12 million Americans.

But Obama sees choice as dangerous. He fears that “where there are no requirements for you to get cancer screenings,” no insurers would offer such coverage. The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn echoes, “Less cancer screening under McCain’s plan? Actually, yes.”

Nonsense. California doesn’t mandate colon-cancer screening, yet Kaiser Permanente of Northern California is a leader in such research and boasts the most aggressive screening program in the country.

Michigan doesn’t mandate prostate or cervical cancer screening, yet six of the University of Michigan’s seven insurance offerings cover both. That’s where Cohn gets his insurance, so I’ll bet him a fancy dinner that he has coverage for both, even without a mandate.

If anyone from my senior-year calculus class is out there (what were there, six of us?), you may recognize the reference to a horrific chapter from my academic career.