Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The mindless canard stating as unexplained fact that it would be worse to expand the federal government by a third in order to accommodate single-payer healthcare insurance than it is to have private, for-profit health insurance companies playing this role instead

No one would ever accuse Bernie Sanders of thinking small. The senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate wants to transform one of the world’s most boisterous free-market economies into an exemplar ofScandinavian-style “democratic socialism.” He wants to jail Wall Street executives and double the minimum wage. And he wants to spend taxpayer money, lots of it.

According to an estimate by The Wall Street Journal, Sanders’ spending plans would cost $18 trillion over 10 years, increasing the federal government’s size by roughly a third. He would create a single-payer health plan, make public universities free, expand Social Security, spend big on infrastructure, create universal child-care and pre-K programs, provide federal jobs for young people and bail out struggling pension plans, among other things.

To be sure, fully $15 trillion of the $18 trillion would come from Sanders’ health plan, which seems unlikely to cost that much. Bringing all Americans under the umbrella of a single-payer system would create enormous power to hold down prices.

Even so, there’s no doubt that Sanders, who’s running a surprisingly strong second to Hillary Clinton in the latest polls, is talking serious money.

— Bernie Sanders: ‘Now is the time for bold action’, USA Today editorial, yesterday

Yes, no one would ever accuse Bernie Sanders of thinking small.  And no one should ever accuse the USA Today editorial page staff of explaining why increasing the federal government’s size by roughly a third is per se a bad idea. I mean other than just saying we can’t afford it.

I give the writer of this editorial credit for saying upfront and explicitly that $15 trillion of the $18 trillion would come from Sanders’ health plan.  That’s more than Washington Post editorial writer Stephen Stromberg did the day after that WSJ report last month.*  And it’s more than the WSJ reporter did in the article itself, if I remember right.

But why exactly is it per se bad to expand the federal government significantly?  That is what Medicare and Social Security did, and the National Labor Relations Act and the Securities Exchange Act and the EPA, etc.  If you think these pieces of legislation should not have been enacted, fine.  But most people would disagree with you.

Sanders wants to replace private-industry healthcare insurance with federal, nonprofit, single-payer insurance.  Like Denmark!  And like Medicare.  I would love to see Sanders have an economist like Uwe Reinhardt or Joseph Stiglitz compute what the cost to individuals receiving Medicare would be now if there were no Medicare.  Especially since most of them are retired, so there would not be the possibility of employer-based private insurance.

What drives me crazy about this mindless but politically potent canard is that these folks don’t attempt to explain why it would be worse to expand the federal government by a third in this respect than it is to have private, for-profit health insurance companies playing this role instead.  How much more income tax revenue would the federal government receive if the money that employers now pay in insurance premiums went instead to wages and salaries?  And how much better would the economy be if that happened, and if individuals weren’t saddled with premiums and large out-of-pocket healthcare costs?

Josh Barro has an outstanding column in today’s New York Times, the theme of which is that Sanders unnecessarily complicates his candidacy and causes confusion—providing an opening to his opponents like the one Clinton took at the debate last week to imply that Sanders wants to nationalize businesses, large and small; he cited Clinton’s comment—by calling himself something he is not: a democratic socialist.  He’s a social democrat, Barro and others he quotes, say, accurately.

But the key part of Barro’s lengthy column is this:

“When you look at the policies, there’s a way to see it as Bernie has cranked up Hillary’s agenda to 11,” [Roosevelt Institute economist Mike] Konczal said. To wit: Mrs. Clinton favors preserving Social Security with some enhancements for the poorest beneficiaries, while he wants to raise taxes on the rich to expand it in ways that could add $65 per month to the average benefit. This, like most political debates, is a disagreement about how far to turn the knobs when adjusting policy; it does not seem to call for a separate ideological label. That said, Mr. Konczal did offer one difference between Mr. Sanders’s and Mrs. Clinton’s worldviews that is of kind rather than degree. This is decommodification: the idea that some goods and services are so important that they ought to be removed from the market economy altogether.  [Italics added.]

The idea behind the Affordable Care Act, and behind Mrs. Clinton’s approach to tinkering with Obamacare, is that quality health insurance should be affordable to everyone, and that people who can’t afford it should be given subsidies to buy it. For a democratic socialist, that’s not good enough; instead, health care should simply be provided to everyone without charge, removing the profit motive from health care. But even this is a matter of degrees. Mr. Sanders favors Medicare for all: a single­payer health care system, with the federal government as the sole insurer. This would remove the profit motive from health insurance but not from health care, which could continue to be provided by private doctors and hospitals, often working on a for­profit basis. Mr. Sanders is not proposing to go further, like Britain, and have doctors work directly for the government. Nor does he appear inclined to decommodify broad swathes of the economy; in other countries, even conservatives often endorse special, less-­marketized rules for health care than for other sectors.

This distinction is real, but it’s not clear to me that it merits Mr. Sanders his own ideological label.

That—the idea that some goods and services are so important that they ought to be removed from the market economy altogether—is why it is absolutely incumbent upon the USA editorial writer, Stephen Stromberg, Hillary Clinton, and anyone else who takes the position that a single-payer, Medicare-for-all healthcare insurance system is per se bad because it would be run by the federal government, to actually state why this is so.

*The editorial was, like all Post (and most newspaper) editorials, published without a byline, but Stromberg had a blog post there on the same day that was virtually identical to the editorial.  [Elementary, Watson!]

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Justice Scalia’s Curious Memory Lapse. NO, not the one everyone’s talking about. [Post typo-corrected]

Clarification appended below.


During oral arguments in a freedom-of-speech case out of Alabama, several justices challenged the notion that public employees who testify truthfully about an issue of significant public concern aren’t shielded from retaliation by the First Amendment.

“What kind of message are we giving when we’re telling employees, you’re subpoenaed in a trial, go and tell a falsehood because otherwise you can be fired?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked attorneys in the case.

The Fifth Amendment protects state employees against self-incrimination on the witness stand, but “it doesn’t protect the department he works for from being incriminated,” Chief Justice John Roberts said.

Justices suggest public employees’ testimony is protected, Mary Orndorff Troyan, USA Today, today

It’s nice to know that the Fifth Amendment doesn’t protect the department he works for from being incriminated.  It would be nicer still to know that the First Amendment, so vaunted these days by the Supreme Court as allowing the purchase of legislative votes as long as there’s no formal purchase receipt issued by the legislator/seller, that that Amendment protects the truthful speech of public-employee whistleblowers, and not just the speech of public employees who don’t want to speak in support of big government by being compelled to pay a fee to the union that is negotiating the terms of their employment (pay, benefits, working conditions) and that will represent them in disputes with the employer.  (Okay, the last part of that compound sentence is based on a comment by Alito during argument in January in a case called Harris v. Quinn.  The opinion in the case hasn’t been issued yet.)

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Romney’s Dependency on Rightwing Cliché and Errors of Historical Fact Won’t Deliver Him (Political) Recovery

My experience has taught me that government works best when it creates the space for individuals and families to pursue success and achieve great things. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in creating sustained prosperity and lifting people out of poverty. It is why our economy rose to rival those of the world’s leading powers — and has long since surpassed them all.

The dreamers and the entrepreneurs, not government, built this economy, and they can once again make it strong.

My course for the American economy will encourage private investment and personal freedom. Instead of creating a web of dependency, I will pursue policies that grow our economy and lift Americans out of poverty.

My five-point plan will deliver the economic recovery we’ve all been waiting for and the jobs millions of Americans still need. This can be more than our hope; it can be our future. And it can start this November with your vote.

Romney: I’ll deliver recovery, not dependency, Mitt Romney, USA Today op-ed, today

Of all the many oddities of Romney’s cartoonish campaign and cartoonish campaign persona, the strangest, I think, is his penchant for stating loopy conclusions based upon a single fact that does not even conceivably support the conclusion.  This tactic (if that’s what it is) has been the hallmark, the very essence, of his campaign.  

Last week I questioned whether Romney was a habitual liar or, instead, simply God-awful stupid.  In light of the events of this week—the infamous surreptitiously-filmed fundraising address about the 47% of Americans whom Romney will never be able to convince should take personal responsibility for their lives and their care and who correlate precisely with the 47% of the electorate who are Obama supporters, and his “doubling down” on those comments since release of the video—I think it’s clear that while some of Romney’s incessant wild extrapolations and conflations are part of bizarre campaign tactic, some of the most important ones are not.  They are, rather, the result of jaw-dropping stupidity—an apparent genuine inability to understand the meaning of single facts and to distinguish between entirely separate concepts. 

Not least of these, of course, is that Americans whose income is too low under the tax code for them to owe income tax necessarily don’t take personal responsibly for their lives and for their care, and that since the percentage of Americans who don’t pay income tax is about the same as the percentage of voters who, polls show, support Obama, virtually all people who don’t pay income taxes are Obama supporters, and virtually no Obama supporters pay income taxes.  Warren Buffett must have an income too low to require him to pay income taxes.

Also not least is Romney’s inability to distinguish between a plan—specifics, supported by empirical evidence—and ideological clichés that consist entirely of generic declarations and supposed results.  Placing bullet-point indicators in front of five such declarations doesn’t transform them into a plan.  If he actually has a plan—specifics, supported by empirical evidence—then he should disclose it.  Economic plans are, after all, not tax returns, although it’s no longer surprising that Romney can’t distinguish the two.

But most disconcerting is Romney’s out-of-nowhere, patently false insistence, repeated time and again, that “our economy rose to rival those of the world’s leading powers — and … long since surpassed them all” during a period of lower taxes on the wealthy than we have now—a period of a less-progressive tax code and more inequality.  In other words, during a time when we had, according to him, more economic freedom, than we do now.

It’s long past time for the Obama campaign to educate the public about 20th century American economic and political history.  And to challenge Romney’s intellectual capacity to recognize what facts he needs to know before making important assertions, proposals and decisions, and to understand what those facts indicate or don’t.

Until very recently, I had presumed that Romney was only pretending to think that ideological bromides were actual facts.  I know better now.  And the most effective ads that the Obama campaign can run will show Romney for the intellectual lightweight that he is.  

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Romney Says Two Current Republican Governors Support Obama’s Reelection! Really.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney escalated his attacks on President Barack Obama’s welfare waivers Monday, suggesting that welfare recipients make up President Barack Obama’s political “base.”

In an interview with USA Today, Romney defended his much-criticized ads, which falsely accuse the president of removing the work requirement in welfare. He insisted that the spots were accurate and that Obama had pursued his policy as part of an electoral calculation.

“There’s no question in my mind that the president’s action was calculated to… shore up his base,” Romney said, according to an extended quote that USA Today provided to The Huffington Post. “Weakening the work requirement in welfare is an enormous mistake.”

Mitt Romney Suggests Obama Welfare Waivers Are A Tactic To ‘Shore UpHis Base’, Luke Johnson, Sam Stein, Huffington Post, today

Two current Republican governors support Obama’s reelection?  Wow. That’s a very big political story! And apparently it’s true!  Since two of the five governors who requested the waiver that Obama granted in order to fire up his base are Republicans (presumably expecting that Obama would grant the waiver requests in order to fire his base), those two Republican governors must be in cahoots with Obama. 

And since virtually no one—members of Obama’s now-fired-up base, included—even knew of the waiver requests and the waiver grants until the Romney campaign made sure they and everyone else (including Romney’s base) did, it seems that the Romney campaign also wants to fire up Obama’s base.  Not to mention their own.

Didn’t know that Obama’s “base,” er, base, had been clamoring for welfare waivers. Then again, I didn’t know that Utah’s and Nevada’s Republican governors were part of that base.  I mean, who knew?
Oh, brother.  

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