August 19, 2009 1:05PM

Bringing the States Back In

afghanistan

It's an annoying, hackneyed trope of foreign policy types to say "if you want to understand X, you have to understand Y."  That said, let me engage in a little bit of it.

What's going on in Afghanistan, we're supposed to believe, is about terrorism, failed states, economic development, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, human rights, and some other stuff.  And to an extent, it is about each of those things.  But to my mind, if you want to get a handle on what's driving events over there, and on its historical status as a plaything of regional and extraregional powers, you ought to read this article in today's Wall Street Journal.

The themes that permeate the article are familiar: States as the primary actors in international politics, their uncertainty about other states' intentions, the fundamental zero-sumness of security competition...somebody should cook up a theory or two on this stuff.

Eventually--although in fairness, God only knows when--we're going to leave Afghanistan.  When that happens, India and Pakistan are still going to live in the neighborhood.  They'd each prefer to have lots of influence in Afghanistan, and to preclude the other from having too much.  Accordingly, they're both trying to set up structures and relationships that would, in the ideal scenario, let them control Afghanistan.  In a less-than-ideal scenario, they'd like enough influence to undermine the other's control of the country.  Until you grasp that nettle, you're really just fumbling around in the dark.

Find a solution for that in your COIN manual.

August 18, 2009 8:37AM

False Accounts of Massachusetts’ Health Reforms

Recent editorials in both the Boston Globe and The New York Times contained some staggering falsehoods about the cost of Massachusetts' health reforms.  Here is a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Globe:

The editorial “Mass. bashers take note: Health reform is working” [Aug. 5] states that “the cost to the state taxpayer” of the Massachusetts health reforms is “about $88 million a year.”  That claim is unquestionably false.  The cost to state taxpayers is 19 times that amount, while the total cost is 24 times that amount.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation explains that the $88-million figure represents not the total cost to the state government, but the average annual increase in the state government’s costs.  Worse, the editorial completely ignores new spending by the federal government and the private sector, which account for 80 percent of the law’s cost.

According to Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates, health reform will cost at least $2.1 billion in 2009.  The total cost to state taxpayers is at least $1.7 billion and growing.  (The fact that other states’ taxpayers bear the balance should not be a source of pride.)

One wonders how such a falsehood comes to appear on a leading editorial page.

And one I sent to the Times:

The Massachusetts Model” [Aug. 9] understates the cost of the Massachusetts health plan.

The editorial claims, “the federal and state governments each pa[y] half of the added costs, or about $350 million” in 2010.  The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which generated that estimate, assumes that Massachusetts will eliminate $200 million in subsidies to safety-net hospitals next year.  Given that those hospitals are currently suing the Commonwealth and exerting political pressure to increase such payments, those assumed cuts are hypothetical.  More certain is the foundation’s estimate that the on-budget cost will reach $817 billion in 2009.

Yet the foundation’s estimates also show that the law (1) pushes 60 percent of its cost off-budget and onto the private sector; (2) costs about three times the $700 million that the editorial suggests, and (3) is covering 432,000 previously uninsured residents at a cost of about $6,700 each, or $27,000 for a family of four.  That’s more than twice the average cost of family coverage nationwide.

The editorial admonishes that “the public should demand an honest assessment, from critics and supporters” of the Massachusetts health plan.  Indeed.

A fuller response to these spurious claims may be found here.

I wish I could run a newspaper, so I could print false stuff and then not correct it.  Oh wait, I do blog...

August 3, 2009 3:27PM

States Are Always Surprised When the Bubble Bursts

Steve Chapman points out in the Chicago Tribune:

The crisis in state budgets is not an accident, and it wasn't unforeseeable. For years, most states have spent like there's no tomorrow, and now tomorrow is here. They bring to mind the lament of Mickey Mantle, who said, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."

If they had known the revenue flood wasn't a permanent fact of life, governors and legislators might have prepared for drought. Instead, like overstretched homeowners, they took on obligations they could meet only in the best-case scenario -- which is not what has come to pass.

Over the last decade, state budgets have expanded rapidly. We have had good times and bad times, including a recession in 2001, but according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, this will be the first year since 1983 that total state outlays have not increased.

The days of wine and roses have been affordable due to a cascade of tax revenue. In state after state, the government's take has ballooned. Overall, the average person's state tax burden has risen by 42 percent since 1999 -- nearly 50 percent beyond what the state would have needed just to keep spending constant, with allowances for inflation.

Would that other journalists would show such good sense when governors and legislators moan about the draconian budget cuts they're being forced to make, taking their state budgets back to the dark Dickensian days of 2003 or 2005.