The Government Habit

Someone once observed that the problem with conservatives is that they want to ban anything that they don’t like and the problem with liberals is that they think anything good ought to be subsidized by taxpayer dollars.  And so it goes with needle exchanges.  Too many jurisdictions ban needles from stores.  And then the liberals who fight the bans want to leap over to government funding for needle exchanges.  It is as if no one has considered the idea that the government should just stay out of it altogether.

Media Failure?

Just a few minutes ago on the washingtonpost.com homepage, there was an example of one of my pet peeves about bias – possibly unconscious bias – in the way the major media cover issues. A homepage headline read “Price of Failure on Health Care,” and the Howard Kurtz article itself is titled “The Price of Failure.” Kurtz explores what would happen if “health care reform [goes] down in flames.”

So what does he mean by “Failure on Health Care”? He means President Obama not getting the sweeping new government programs that he seeks. But to many of us Post readers, that would actually be “Success on Health Care.” It would mean that American health care would not get worse under the burden of government regulations and restrictions.

The media tendency to refer to the defeat of a big-government scheme as “failure” reflects a possibly unconscious bias toward government action. As I’ve written before:

Does one ever hear “Congress failed today to reduce taxes”? “No Progress on Deregulation”? I don’t think so. Journalists unconsciously assume that Congress should Do the Right Thing. When it doesn’t, that’s “failure” or “no progress.” Journalists and headline writers should try to find neutral language to describe Congress’s actions.

(Kurtz’s article actually focuses on the political consequences to Obama of not passing his signature issue, and I have no quarrel with the article. But the headlines convey the sense that it would be a “failure” for Congress not to pass a government health-care plan.)

President Throws U.S. Postal Service Under the Bus

In a speech yesterday in defense of his health care plan, President Obama used an interesting analogy to dismiss criticism that the inclusion of a government-run insurance option could undermine private insurers:

“UPS and FedEx are doing just fine… It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.”

Comparing the USPS with a proposed government-run insurance plan is probably counterproductive for the President’s aims.  But making the analogy and deriding the government-run mail carrier – while acknowledging that private-sector UPS and FedEx are “fine” – provides some nice ammo for those of us who think the government should be less involved in both health care and mail delivery.

Now I understand that comparing the USPS to FedEx and UPS isn’t exactly apples to apples.  But that’s due at least in part to the fact that the USPS has a government-granted monopoly on first (and third) class mail.  When it comes to mailing a letter, there is no private option for Americans.

Last week the Government Accountability Office reported on the state of Government Mail and the situation isn’t pretty:

USPS projects for fiscal year 2009:

• a net loss of $7 billion, even if it achieves record savings of more than $6 billion;
• an increase in outstanding debt to a total of $10.2 billion; and,
• despite this borrowing, an unprecedented $1 billion cash shortfall.

USPS projects cash shortfalls because cost cutting and rate increases will not fully offset the impact of mail volume declines and other factors that increase costs—notably semiannual cost-of-living allowances (COLA) for employees covered by collective bargaining agreements. Compensation and benefits constitute close to 80 percent of USPS’s costs—a percentage that has remained similar over the years despite major advances in technology and the automation of postal operations. Also, USPS continues to pay a higher share of employee health benefit premiums than other federal agencies. Finally, USPS has high overhead (institutional) costs that are hard to change in the short term, such as the costs of providing universal service with 6-day delivery, a network of 37,000 post offices and retail facilities, and a delivery network of more than 149 million addresses.

It’s time to give Americans a private option for sending mail, with privatization of the USPS being the ultimate goal.

WashingtonWatch.com Earmarks Project Drives Obama Administration Reform

I was very pleased to read in Federal Computer Week this morning that the Office of Management and Budget will begin tracking earmark requests next year for the fiscal 2011 budget cycle.

OMB makes available some years’ approved earmarks, but not the earmark requests put forward by members of Congress. Tracking and publishing requests will shed light on the whole ecosystem of congressional earmarks—the favor factory, if you will.

OMB’s move follows a project WashingtonWatch.com has conducted this summer: asking the public to plug earmark disclosures into a database. The site now maps over 20,000 earmarks. (Well, technically, that much data breaks the mapping tool, but you can see state-by-state earmark maps.)

Earlier this year, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees required their members to disclose earmark requests. These disclosures—published as Web pages and PDF documents—were not useful, but public interest in this area is strong, and the public made them useful by entering them into WashingtonWatch.com’s database.

The project isn’t over, by the way, and the current focus is collecting earmarks requested by Appropriations Committee members.

It’s great news that next year the Obama Administration will track and disclose earmarks, from request all the way through to enactment. Given his struggle in the area lately, this is a chance to score some transparency points. President Obama campaigned against earmarks, promising reform, and this is an important step toward delivering on that promise.

“The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare”

Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal titled, “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare.”  Let’s just say Whole Foods may not be asked to cater any Democratic Party gatherings any time soon:

While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system. Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment.

Mackey then lists several alternatives to ObamaCare, including broader health savings accounts, letting people purchase health insurance across state lines, giving people who purchase their own coverage the same tax status as employer-sponsored insurance, and Medicare reform.

Mackey shows little patience for those who claim we have a right to health care:

At Whole Foods we allow our team members to vote on what benefits they most want the company to fund. Our Canadian and British employees express their benefit preferences very clearly—they want supplemental health-care dollars that they can control and spend themselves without permission from their governments. Why would they want such additional health-care benefit dollars if they already have an “intrinsic right to health care”? The answer is clear—no such right truly exists in either Canada or the U.K.—or in any other country.

Man, what a neanderthal.  He must be anti-reform.  Except:

Health-care reform is very important. Whatever reforms are enacted it is essential that they be financially responsible, and that we have the freedom to choose doctors and the health-care services that best suit our own unique set of lifestyle choices. We are all responsible for our own lives and our own health. We should take that responsibility very seriously and use our freedom to make wise lifestyle choices that will protect our health. Doing so will enrich our lives and will help create a vibrant and sustainable American society.

How will the White House Snitch Project grapple with this one?  Claim that the founder of Whole Foods is in league with the insurance companies?  In thrall to Big PhRMA?  No, wait, that’s the Obama administration….

Change We Can’t Believe In?

In her Washington Post column today, Ruth Marcus doesn’t mention President Obama’s 1-for-46 record on posting bills online for five days before signing them. But she does single out a similar promise: “When the details of health reform were being hammered out, he vowed, ‘We’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.’”

According to Marcus, dealmaking with the drug industry “underscores the dangerously wide gap between Obama’s idealistic campaign-trail promises and the gritty realities of governing. “

Observers will continue to note peeling paint and growing rust spots on the “Change” icon that swept President Obama into office. He set high standards by which his lawmaking practices will be judged, and he’s not meeting them.

That’s not a personal knock on the president. He would if he could. But even a president can’t single-handedly undo the power dynamics that have accrued in and around Washington, D.C. for most of the last century – especially not one who believes that exercising government power is good.