Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who needs the Pinkertons when you have the Democrats?

As has likely been apparent from several recent posts, the aspect of the health care legislation being advocated that I find most interesting is the insurance mandate, which would make it illegal to not have health insurance. If we're lucky, the recent election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts will throw a wrench into the "reform" process, but I'm not getting my hopes up too high. (A good rule of thumb is that if your hopes involve phrases like "If the Republicans are principled and resolute," you're fucked.) In any case, there's another aspect of the mandate that is worth exploring.

One side effect of so many people getting their health insurance through their employer is that it often weakens the bargaining position of employees relative to their employers. For many people, leaving their job- whether by quitting or by being fired-not only cuts off their income, it deprives them of their insurance until they get their own policy or a new job.

The whole point of insurance is to secure yourself against unexpected catastrophe, so losing it can often entail serious costs beyond its monetary value- fear, insecurity, lost peace of mind. This can and often does make the prospect of temporary unemployment more daunting than it otherwise would be. As a result, it can become easier for a boss to cow workers into accepting mistreatment, and harder for workers to walk away from a bad job (or credibly threaten to do so).

Which makes it interesting, I think, that the government does so much to encourage precisely this arrangement, through the tax structure and through various state-level regulations. The government started the practice of getting health insurance from your employer more or less by accident, when businesses competing for workers during the Second World War started offering insurance to workers in order to get around wage controls. It then became encouraged through the tax code, and now it is pretty much taken for granted as the right way to do things.

Indeed, when the supposed of the working man attack this or that business, "They don't give their employees health insurance" is usually near the top of the list of charges. In most cases, I think this is the result of simple ignorance, since the idea that we live in a universe of scarce resources, and that therefore the money to pay for additional employee benefits has to come from somewhere- monetary wages, quality of working conditions, new hiring- is something a lot of people don't really understand.

There's also a contingent, much less common in my experience, that acknowledges the trade-off and is instead motivated by paternalism- workers should not be permitted to sacrifice employer-provided insurance in favor of higher cash wages, because they don't understand what's best for them. (It's always important to remember that most laws framed as restrictions on employers can be described as restrictions on workers with equal accuracy.)

That said, if I've figured this effect out, I find it hard to believe that companies big enough to have some muscle in Washington haven't. Which in turn makes me wonder how much of the political support for the tax code's favoring of employer-provided health insurance over other compensation, and more recently the idea of mandating employer provision of insurance, is motivated by precisely this.

Which brings us to the proposed universal mandate, under which everyone must have insurance. Despite the psychological factors described above, people are sometimes willing to accept the risk of temporarily going without insurance. But once health care is "reformed," being uninsured will be not merely a risk, but a crime. Everyone must pay, either to the insurance companies or to the government in the form of fines. (Which will almost certainly go up if their initial level is low enough that large numbers of people choose to pay the fine rather than hand over their money to the insurance industry.)

The upshot is simple. If you are insured through your employer, the proposed mandate is, in effect, a tax on quitting your job. Like so much that is ironic in politics, it would be funny if it weren't so sick: The people who shout loudest and longest about protecting the common man from the oppression of merciless plutocrats are the champions of measures that will bind more workers to their current jobs and bosses, and will chain you more tightly the more vulnerable, desperate, or impoverished you are.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Next, Democrats to declare spending a quiet evening at home by yourself on Friday night "a form of sexual activity"

Reading a Wall Street Journal article on the proposed insurance mandate (Hat tip: Hit and Run), the following jumped out at me:

Democrats and their allies say that despite its novelty, the insurance mandate falls within the definition of interstate commerce. The Senate bill cites data to show the importance of the health-care industry to the national economy and the damage caused by leaving millions of Americans uninsured.

Requiring the uninsured to buy coverage will "create economies of scale" and "is essential to creating effective health-insurance markets," the bill says.

Republicans argue that while Congress can regulate economic activity, the failure to buy insurance amounts to inactivity -- and the Constitution doesn't give Congress power to regulate that...

Democrats say that failing to buy insurance is a form of economic activity, because it shifts costs to others in the marketplace through higher insurance premiums, and onto the public when the uninsured use emergency rooms to obtain primary care.

Now, the fact that the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution is routinely interpreted to mean that the government can do anything whatsoever is hardly news to me, and this actually isn't all that big a jump. Growing grain on your own land for your own use was declared part of "interstate commerce" in Wickard v. Filburn because growing grain instead of buying it from somebody else affects the overall market price of grain; thus, the idea that abstention from commerce can itself be regulated as commerce is not at all new.

I think the U.S. Constitution is valuable for rhetorical purposes, as a way of pointing out that the government routinely ignores its own supposed laws, but I have little confidence in the idea of constitutions as an effective, lasting check on government expansion. By the time we reached the point where growing grain on your own land for your own use could be regulated as "interstate commerce," the idea that America had a limited government restricted by law to particular functions enumerated in a written constitution became a bad joke.

Despite that, I still find this remarkable for how brazen and explicit this is: Merely existing is interstate commerce. With every moment, you are abstaining from innumerable transactions that you potentially could have engaged in, and each abstention has economic consequences that might conceivably have some effect outside your own state. There is very little in life that doesn't become "interstate commerce" under this principle.

My failure to buy Pearl Jam albums or nonalcoholic beer or Mack Bolan novels has an effect on interstate commerce; if more people bought those things, the greater economies of scale would lower unit costs. If we take the reasoning justifying the mandate seriously, is there any reason I couldn't be required by law to buy these things if Congress wanted me to? The government could give enormous subsidies to favored industries without spending a dime.

Let's take it another step. Each person's decisions on what to abstain from buying are affected by how much money they have, which in turn is affected by what sort of job they have and how much they work. Imagine a worker who has the option to work additional hours for overtime pay but chooses not to, or a highly paid doctor or attorney who hates his job and decides to live a more modest lifestyle so that he can work in a field that is less lucrative but more personally fulfilling, or a mother who switched to part-time work so she could spend more time with the children. All of that affects interstate commerce, so why shouldn't the government tell people where and how much to work?

The previous paragraph may sound rather outlandish; it certainly does to me. That's no bar to plausibility. I can still remember when the idea of the government controlling fat and sugar consumption was talked about as a joke, meant to ridicule the government's attacks on smoking by taking the principle of health paternalism to what was, at the time, an absurd conclusion. Only a decade later, something that was "obviously" silly is now firmly in the mainstream.

I don't claim that the scenario above invariably will happen- and if it does, it's not likely to be that blatant. However, I do believe it is a quite plausible result of the sort of reasoning being used to defend the mandate, not just a wacky reductio ad absurdum; after all, that would require me to believe that there are expansions of state power too obviously silly to be seriously entertained by mainstream American politicians, and if history is any guide that's a losing bet.

I'm sure anyone who is claiming that not buying insurance should be regulated as "interstate commerce" would vehemently deny any desire for a government that can dictate the minutiae of personal consumption described above, much less much less one that controls whether people can change jobs. Most of them would probably mean it, too. That makes no difference at all, once the precedent is turned loose.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thank you

I received several positive comments- on my blog, from other sites, and in e-mail- from male victims of rape and child abuse committed by women for my post on that subject, and on the grotesque attitudes that surround it in our culture. I really want to thank you guys for letting me know the post meant something to you; knowing that meant more to me than I can express. Thank you

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thank heavens I'm not the cynical type

Looking back over the past year and re-reading commentary surrounding the Roman Polanksi arrest and the death of Ted Kennedy, and then thinking further back to my politically formative years during the Clinton era, I'm increasingly struck by how eagerly so many left-liberals, champions of the oppressed and underprivileged and don't you forget it, fight to defend rich, powerful, and prestigious elite men who commit reprehensible acts against vulnerable women and girls of much lower socioeconomic status.

It's not all of them, by any means, but it's remarkable how much I see people like this, and how unashamed they are. Say what you will about back-to-the-kitchen right-wing reactionaries, I'll give them this: They're all pretty much in agreement on the “Is drugging and raping a 13-year old girl as she pleads with you to stop a serious crime?” issue, whereas no such consensus exists among founders of prominent feminist organizations.

If I were the cynical type, I'd start to wonder how much of the concern endlessly expressed about the plight of the underprivileged is genuine, and how much is a way for liberal politicians, interest groups, and intellectuals to strut, preen, and create the illusion that they are something other than members of the same establishment they are supposedly rebelling against. If I were the really cynical type, I'd start asking why laws and regulations produced for the ostensible purpose of protecting vulnerable or oppressed people from the depredations of the powerful seldom seem to have much actual effect on the powerful, aside from giving them a bigger stick with which to beat those beneath them.

If I were the cynical type.

Stumble Upon Toolbar