Friday, July 31, 2009

The perils of privacy

As the debate on health care continues to unfold, we're hearing increasing amounts of concern (some of it bordering on lunacy) on the Right due to their fear of anything that the big, bad government might get its grubby little hands on.

This made me think about comparing apples to apples. The reason why conservatives can get all bent out of shape over the bills being developed in congress now is because the government has an obligation to expose its bills in public. The government's business is our business, so we, the people, get to comment, protest or agree with what we're seeing. This very transparency creates political energy, which directly evolves the bills in progress.

This is what is called democracy. Ain't it great?

Let's now look at the comparison: back when non-profit health plans started becoming for-profit, and health insurance transitioned into "managed care." When that reform was happening, it was being run by private industry. Nobody got to comment on the strategy or plan. And the public was not privy to the details outlining all the ways they planned on profiting off of our health. Nobody was aware of the magic number CFOs were telling CEOs that was the economic value of a customer's life. Yet, these discussions must have happened because if you're in the business of selling health insurance, you're most certainly doing big-time actuarial stuff to ensure you're turning a consistent profit and healthy margins.

So, what's the difference here? That the big, bad untrustworthy government is required to share with we, the people, the health care plans they're developing -- in progress as well as when they're fully complete. Meanwhile those private firms that we trust now with our health care insurance aren't required to divulge anything to us in terms of their detailed business plans because, well, they're businesses.

The end result is that this very transparent system that is designed to serve the people is being demonized by the Right, and the very opaque, profit-driven system we have today is seen by many as a holy grail that we dare not touch or threaten with a more transparent, government-based solution.

It all makes you wonder how the debate would have evolved if the same level of transparency was required when managed care was being devised in the early 1970s...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The politics of funding, part 2: outing deficit hawk hypocrites

Check out the info-graphics about the U.S. debt:

So, in these info-graphics, we have two somewhat competing messages:

First, in terms of actual amount of debt, it's staggeringly off the charts. A real "gulp" moment for fiscal conservatives. And probably a serious warning signal for Americans in general -- both from a national debt perspective, as well as a personal debt perspective.

Yet the second graph indicates a rather sobering context: that as a percent of GDP, we're right at about average when looking at the ratios for the past 70 years. Of course, the trend line does not look all that promising, but in terms of actual reality right now, this is not "sky is falling" debt ratios like you might have heard about in the media.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I feel this point needs to be re-iterated to counter the central political meme that Obama and the Democrats can't be trusted with the debt, and that somehow it's their policies that are somehow going to drive this country off a fiscal cliff. Whereas the facts clearly indicate that the serious trend up in national and public debt happened under G.W. Bush with a Republican congress.

I will openly accept that the Republican governance that got us where we are now does not give Obama unfettered privilege to spend like money grows on trees (though, I hear it does grow freely at the Fed). But what these charts do tell us is that it's not Obama's fault that we are where we are, and that the Democratic way of managing the nation deserves a few years of "hands off" politics to see if their way will lay a better foundation for growth and prosperity than the Republican way has. Yet, that is clearly not how things are shaping up, are they? Unfortunately, the Republicans are showing America that they are out for political blood more than they're really out for working with the elected President to advance the policies he was elected into office to enact.

What does this mean? It means that all the rancor about the deficit, socialism, and whatnot is purely political, and not patriotic. A real American patriot would give Obama and the Democrats at least four years to turn the ship around before bashing any specific approach. The current leadership has earned the right to use their management philosophy to right the ship through a democratic process that we all support. Should Republicans just sit back and sip martinis as Democrats go to town? Of course not. Republicans should be critiquing everything... they should be trying to influence the minority view. But I think we all get the sense that this is not how they're handling their minority position. They are screaming from the rooftops, calling Sotomayor a racist, calling Obama a socialist, and calling Pelosi a loser. Really? Is this how our founding fathers would have wanted our minority party to behave?

The Republicans who are all bent out of shape now were far-too-quiet when the debt lines on those graphs were spiraling out of control when "their way" to manage things was in season. If I would have heard the same level of rage since 2001 -- when those debt numbers were trending upward in scary amounts -- then I would give Republicans the floor and thank them for their patriotic oversight of our national financial well-being. But they didn't (at least, most of them didn't -- John McCain was a lone Republican voice in 2003 when he opposed tax cuts during war-time spending). And because they weren't deficit hawks then, they really have very little patriotic credibility now as they squawk on about Democratic spending plans. What they're doing is playing pure politics -- they're not really trying to help Obama govern the country better.

This political dynamic is a national shame. This top-line analysis should be followed-up with some data around how each Republican congressman (and talk-show host) talked about deficit spending from 2003-2008, to prove my point that what they are doing right now is disingenuous, yet is presented to us as patriotic. Effective, efficient and world-class health care (and a new, green economy, and equal opportunity and economic stability) is far too important to our national health and well-being to be poisoned by cheap, partisan political pandering.

It's a throw-down here at Between the Columns: I'm calling shenanigans on the deficit hawk hypocrites.

Just to be clear, this is not an endorsement of super-sized deficit spending, nor is this an endorsement of any Obama or Democratic policy. Nor am I saying that Democrats aren't just as hypocritical around other issues. But I am saying that when our current governing majority is trying to push this country forward in the ways they believe are best -- and they've been elected into power in satisfyingly-large majorities to do so -- they have earned the right to give it a go without false outrage confusing the electorate and hindering the amount of change that Obama promised he'd bring to America.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The politics of funding stuff

I believe we've found the Obama weak spot with the American appetite for change: spending money. All the polls indicate that Obama is struggling to keep moderates in his camp with his borrow-heavy approach to problem solving.

This is understandable. Americans have had a healthy fear of federal deficits, which is good for the nation's long-term economic stability. And this fear will create political pressure on the Obama administration to compromise and moderate their grand plans to solve the nation's most crushing challenges. This in and of itself creates a dilemma: if the Obama administration doesn't get the blank check it wants to really solve the economic, health care, energy and ecological crises that it faces, then it can only make a dent in solving these problems. Making a dent is good, but it's not going to solve, resolve or dissolve these issues. Which means that Obama's moderate, even-handed approach to reconciliation might relegate him to being the "band-aid" President, which would be quite a letdown for those who felt he was the Change We Need.

But there is another more systemic political issue at hand as well: I spy a hypocrisy in our aforementioned healthy fear of deficit spending.

Where were the deficit hawks when the Republicans passed a half-trillion dollar Medicare plan? You remember that, right? The largest expansion of Medicare since its inception in 1965 was signed by Bush as he proudly crowed that he was fulfilling 'our nation's solemn promise to America's seniors.' This huge government program came right after Bush pushed out historic tax cuts that were roundly supported by Republicans (sans John McCain) -- a move that also created huge gaps in our federal balance sheet.

So, mums the word when our deficit spending is in the form of tax breaks, and when providing more big-government health care for seniors?

I thought we were all supposed to have a healthy fear of deficits. It turns out, we do, but that's not our ideology. Our ideology is partisan, not national. Democrats scream "deficits!" when Republicans talk tax cuts, Republicans scream "deficits!" when Democrats talk social programs. But, oddly, Republicans go a step further in hypocrisy as I see it when, merely six years ago, they drafted, signed, sealed and delivered a historic, expensive, socialized government-run health care program.