December 17, 2009 11:52AM

Whip (Health Care) Inflation Now?

During the runaway inflations of 1974 and 1979, Presidents Ford and Carter suggested that inflation was caused by the profligacy of American households. President Ford’s infamous “Whip Inflation Now” speech, for example, said, “Here is what we must do, what each and every one of you can do: To help increase food and lower prices, grow more and waste less; to help save scarce fuel in the energy crisis, drive less, heat less.”

Much of the recent discussion of health care costs likewise treats this as a problem caused by a demonic private insurance industry, and therefore requiring such “reforms” as expanding Medicaid to the non‐​poor and Medicare to the non‐​old.

The facts are quite different, as shown in “The Evolution of Medical Spending Risk” by Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Helen Levy of the University of Michigan, in the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Gruber and Levy calculate that real private health care spending per person (in 2007 dollars) “increased from about $700 to $3,500 between 1960 and 2007, a five‐​fold increase.” They note that “private out‐​of‐​pocket spending has not quite doubled.” Yet “government health spending over the same period … increased from about $250 to $3,5000, a 13‐​fold increase.”

In fairness, the quality of health care has been hugely improved since 1960. And prices of physician services (which are often incorrectly compared with the overall consumer price index) have risen no faster than prices of non‐​medical services.

In any case, President Obama’s claim that the pace of total public and private spending on health care could somehow be “contained” by greatly increasing government spending clearly flunks 3rd grade arithmetic.

Unless the hidden agenda is to impose draconian wage and price controls and political rationing on health care providers, all the rhetorical pretense about proposed health care legislation being a way to hold down overall spending on health care is like saying the solution to chronic drunkeness is more booze.