Monday, March 22, 2010

America Continues to Fracture

If you scroll forward to 6:40 above, you will hear Obama saying "It's time to bring this [health care] debate to a close." That is, we are to stop criticizing his massive new entitlement program and get busy making it work. This is one of those times when his grasp of free speech seems, for a constitutional lawyer, surprisingly shaky. People who have fundamental objections to the plan have a right to say why, and they will continue to do so.

It seems to me that this legislation is divisive in a new and potentially dangerous way. Some folks have pointed out that the Democrats have in the past enacted huge new welfare state entitlements over Republican opposition, and yet the nation was not permanently fractured. The examples repeated given are Social Security (under FDR) and Medicare (under Johnson). Others have argued that those measures passed with considerable Republican support. About half the Republicans in Congress voted for Social Security. We have crunchable numbers showing that this time is different. This plan got no Republican support whatsoever.

I think I see an underlying ethical reason for this difference. Yes, the parties are more polarized than they used to be, but this is at least as much an effect as a cause.

The new plan a different sort of plan: it is openly redistributive. The earlier massive entitlements were sold to the individual voters as insurance plans provided by the government for their benefit. The money you get out of social security is even proportioned to how much you pay in, enhancing the similarity to an insurance or savings plan. We could argue about how honest/dishonest it was to package it this way, but the fact is that there was enough truth to this view of it to make it stick. This is, more or less, how the average citizen sees these plans.

The new plan cannot be packaged this way. It is plain to everyone that it is intended to provide millions upon millions with medical insurance at other people's expense. This moves the American welfare state officially into zero-sum territory. There is no way to reconcile the interests of the millions who will be provided with insurance policies with the (so far) even more millions who will be forced to pay for them.

If you add to this the "civil unrest" that is probably coming as a result of of government austerity measures (note riots in recent weeks in Greece, Portugal, and California -- California being the Greece of America), you can see we may be in for some very grim social and political conflicts in this Republic.

[For the lighter side of zero-sum politics, see this.]


Chris said...

The end of that NY Times article notes that the "Nordic" countries are doing fine. Denmark, Finland and Sweden all offer socialized healthcare that goes far beyond anything even considered for America.

You complain about growing debt and then complain more when our country begins emulating fiscally responsible states. This new healthcare plan is projected to save trillions while also providing medicine to millions without it.

What's the downside? Some people are not allowed to decide what to do with some of their money. When the first people show up after being driven broke by paying for someone else's treatment I'll be protesting right there with you, but I just don't see that happening. Instead, I see people arguing and fighting based purely on principles rather than realities and the reality is that world isn't a thought experiment.

Ann said...

The enhanced power of the IRS to enforce mandated purchase of health insurance is quite disconcerting - I do think these mandates should be challenged by the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds. The IRS will apparently have the power to seize tax refunds and issue liens if they deem a citizen has not purchased the required level of insurance for every month of a given year - the requirements determined by the federal bureaucrats. We can be fined for not choosing to take a service and not taking a level of service that the government predefines for us. Obama may prove to be a more divisive president than Dubya.

Anonymous said...

Until the latter 20th century, most Americans received medical care in their communities and insurance was an employer perk. Also factor in that if you had a serious disease, your odds of long term survival and care were nil. Now of course everyone considers access to the state of the art care a right and unfortunatley it does look uncivilized to deny people access or drive families into bankruptcy. Obama grabbed the moral high ground and now the republicans are horrified at the prospect of a large number of the 30 million new covered insured as new voters for the democrats, even if ginned up polls say the dems are in danger. We'll see come November as they say.

Chris said...

In response to Ann:

Who ends up footing the bills of uninsured when they can't afford them? Even if indirectly, the American public ends up responsible for costs associated with these situations, monetary or otherwise. Beside that, who are these mysterious citizens that are willfully avoiding health insurance? Should we be held responsible for the higher medical costs that arise from their lack of preventative care?

It's the same problem I have with the basic idea of Libertarian politics. Trendy though it may be such a view is highly individualistic when society, by definition, is a communal idea. We are inextricably tied to each other's lives every single day and sometimes that costs us money.

As I said before, no one is going broke because this bill is going to force them to be insured. For most, this bill will have a negligible effect on life, but for a good number it will mean a higher quality of life.

Lester Hunt said...


The Nordic countries aren't doing fine because they have "universal" health care. According to this article, all five of the PIIGS countries, the ones that are heading for austerity measures and (possibly) civil disturbances have it too:

As I understand it, the problems of countries like Greece are due to lavish government entitlements, not to a lack thereof.


Yes, the platoons of IRS snoops the bill adds to government rolls is a big concern. I didn't talk about it here because it doesn't contribute (I think) to the zero-sum theme I was sounding.


I think the only thing you say that I would disagreement is your apparent suggestion that before health insurance became widespread, people who had serious illnesses were doomed to die. Believe it or not, I am old enough to remember those days (as recently as the sixties, people paid their own medical bills). It isn't true. Americans' chances of surviving specific diseases have increased spectacularly since then, but I believe that's because of advances in technology, not because insurance is a great way to finance it.

Lester Hunt said...


It sounds like you are talking about something other than what I was talking about. I was saying the bill leads to a new era of angry, possibly violent conflict in American history. I think you are talking about whether it is a good bill overall. That is different.

Part of what you are saying sounds something like: for every $10 it takes from me it gives something like $40 worth of benefit to the people it helps. Even if this is true, it isn't relevant to my point. Indeed, it strengthens that other guy's motive to take another ten bucks from me. On the other hand, unless I am Jeremy Bentham ("the greatest good of the greatest number") it gives me no reason to put up with it. Many people would simply feel that they are being sacrificed for the "greater good."

Ann said...

Chris, we have something very much like ObamaCare in Massachusetts now. Health insurance is required by law and low-cost options for poorer people are supposedly available. Here is how it's played out thus far: some percentage of formerly uninsured people now have health insurance, but tens of thousands still have not signed on, and the mandate is not being enforced universally. Visits to emergency rooms are up 7 percent since the bill passed (they predicted this number would fall dramatically) MA now has the highest insurance premiums in the country, the companies want to raise them another 32 percent to cover increasing costs, but governor is holding increase to 4 percent (probably to avoid riots). This will likely mean rationing of available health services. MA is going broke, this healthcare policy is costing many times more than its advocates ever predicted. Most politicians simply don't understand basic economics.

Anonymous said...

You write:
"you will hear Obama saying 'It's time to bring this [health care] debate to a close.' That is, we are to stop criticizing his massive new entitlement program and get busy making it work. This is one of those times when his grasp of free speech seems, for a constitutional lawyer, surprisingly shaky.

The above quote is another example of your astonishing lack of charity towards the President. Every single make that every single politician makes a similar statement when they get a bill passed that is controversial. Republicans said it with the tax cuts in 2001 and with the War in Iraq. The President does nnot believe that people don't have a right to speak on the issue and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Lester Hunt said...

If that is true, I hereby denounce every single politician for wishing away the freedom of speech of their subjects. However, I am pretty sure that it isn't true. I don't remember G W B, the second worst president ever, saying that, now that we have gone into Iraq, it is time to stop debating whether it was a good idea. Do you? And that was a war, where such a comment would half-way make sense!

Chris said...

While I can't find a quote of GWB telling people to stop arguing about the war in so many words, I think his administration's message of "You're with us or you're with the terrorists" is more chilling to free speech than "It's time this debate to end."

As for my previous comments, I do realize that you were addressing the fracturing of America rather than the quality of the bill with your post. I posted what I did because I don't believe that America is really fracturing because of this bill (if it's really fracturing at all). I've not seen any of evidence of a fracture firsthand, I've just seen news reports of people protesting and heard conservative program hosts talking about how America is fracturing. I haven't had a single conversation about the healthcare bill in my daily life. I think that's because most people don't really care that much. There are always people on either extreme who are pissed off and threatening to leave the country, that's not a problem unique to this bill.

My previous posts focused on the bill because your entry did as well. You wrote that the nature of the bill is what's causing the fracture and my point was that the bill isn't really that big of a deal so it's not what's causing the fracture. IF there is a fracture it's from people looking for something to get worked up over. Soon enough the bill will take effect and no one's life will be shattered (nor will the fabric of our country) and these same people will just move on to something else that's definitely going to be the downfall of America.

Oh and I take a utilitarian approach less because I believe it's the best and more because I believe it's the inescapable reality of a large, homogeneous society.

Ann said...

I find it pure arrogance on Obama's part to state that people who dislike his bill simply don't understand it. No, they do understand it, they don't agree with it, either because of specific parts of it, or on more general grounds of principle. Furthermore, the bill was shoved through Congress in a manner that reached new lows of bullying and cronyism. I will continue to voice my disagreements with this bill, and continue to endure ad hominem insults from democrat acquaintances that I am simply uncharitable or selfish.

Lester Hunt said...


"[H]is administration's message of 'You're with us or you're with the terrorists' is more chilling to free speech than 'It's time this debate to end.'

Are you the same person who made this same point several months ago? As I explained at the time, that quote, from an address to congress, refers to nations that refuse to help us in the war on terror. It has nothing to do with debate. Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

With respect to the last point by Chris, you are correct that President Bush's quote was in reference to countries. That said, I don't think anyone can seriously argue that the Bush Adminstration was quite clear that American citizens had a binary choice. Either support President Bush's policies or you were supporting America's enemies.

Anonymous said...

I agree somewhat with your reply about medicine in the 60's and cost. Usually the most expensive life saving procedures required the services of a skilled surgeon, who would often charge less to a poorer family. However the surgeon now has a wall created by the health care industry between him and the patient for numerous economic and legal reasons. The wall actually serves alot for the public good, but there are some obvious problems.

Although I support these reforms, this whole issue cuts to the core of why we started this country as 13 independent states EACH responsible for their populations' welfare, so I can understand the "unamericanness" of the whole thing.

Lester Hunt said...

"I don't think anyone can seriously argue that the Bush Adminstration was quite clear that American citizens had a binary choice."

What I hold against the Bush administration is things they overtly did, such as warrantless snooping against American citizens. But they seemed to have a better grasp of the people's right in a democracy to criticize their leaders. In all the years of Bush's being vilified, compared to Hitler, etc., he seems to have pretty much ignored it. Obama, on the other hand, can't stop complaining about his critics' using mean words like "Waterloo" and "Armageddon." His ability to tolerate being criticized was one of Bush's few points of personal superiority over Obama.

Anonymous said...

You are, of course, free to believe that President Bush had a better understanding of the First Amendment than President Obama. There is, perhaps unfortunately, no objective evidence to support that belief.
Your comparision of President Bush's ability to take criticism to President Obama is remarkably inapt.
As an initial, I don't believe that President Bush was ever actually compared to Hitler, assuming arguendo that he was, he certainly was not subjected to that comparison with the same frequency as President Obama. Nor was he subjected to the same tenor of vitrolic criticism as President Obama
For example,no Democratic member of Congress stated that President Bush had anti-American views. Yet Republican congresswoman Michelle Bachman bragged about saying this last week.
Similarly, no Democratic member of Congress ever yelled out "You lie" to President Bush during a speech before Congress. Republican Joe Wilson is now famous for doing so.

Lester Hunt said...

"You are, of course, free to believe that President Bush had a better understanding of the First Amendment than President Obama."

Yikes! I never said that! I only said that Bush seemed to mind it a lot less when people criticized him. Other than that his record on the first amendment is bad.

Whether the level of vitriol directed at Obama was greater or not is irrelevant to the point, but in case you have already forgotten the rate at which GWB was compared to Hitler, look at the web site "The Gallery of Bush=Hitler Allusion."

The facts on that are that, tragically, we have had two extraordinarily divisive presidents in a row, and the vilification of both is quite understandable in view of their actual policies (unpopular war and unpopular new, and huge, redistributionist entitlement).

Politicians who do such things will inevitably be hated. Maybe Bush understood this. Obama apparently does not.