A reader sent me a photo last week that he had come across on the Internet. The photo shows a man at a group gathering (probably one of those tea-bagger events) carrying a sign. The sign states in simple, unadorned, albeit not exactly correct English a pretty clear message. It read as follows:
MEDICARE – BROKE
MEDICAID – BROKE
SOCIAL SECURITY – BROKE
U.S. POST OFFICE – BROKE
CASH FOR CLUNKERS – BROKE
FEDERAL HEALTH CARE – ?
The reader asked me if I had a response to the sign and its apparent implication, to wit: if the federal government can’t design and run these programs well enough to keep them in working order, how can it be expected to enact (and run) a federal health care program that will work?
Never one to turn from a challenge, especially one that is so clearly directed at the thrust of many of my columns over the last several years, I’m happy to provide my answer to the reader and to anyone else who might be interested in a different perspective from that represented by the sign and its holder.
For openers, let’s clarify a basic point. The current legislation under consideration is not intended to create a federal health care system. This misunderstanding is largely due to the false representations that are made by opponents of the measure, which, correctly stated, is intended to reform our current private health care system by regulating the health insurance industry.
Okay? Just to be sure, let’s try that one again. The current legislation is not going to establish a federal health care system. It is going to change the existing private health care system, primarily by regulating the health insurance industry. If the legislation were intended to establish a federal health care system, we’d be talking about nationalizing our hospitals and putting medical care providers (doctors, nurses, technicians and clerical staff) on a government payroll, like the U.S. Post Office.
When your local mail carrier delivers your daily ration of advertisements, political junk, donation requests and the usual complement of greeting cards and occasional letters, he or she is doing so under the auspices of the United States government. Nothing in the current health care legislation would result in a similar relationship for the health care providers of your choice.
But what about the sign and all the “broke” federal programs? Let’s take them one at a time.
Medicare – I have no idea what is claimed to be “broke” about this program. Without it, many seniors would be going without any health care, since private insurance companies wouldn’t insure those with “pre-existing” conditions or those who were otherwise deemed “uninsurable.” Medicare will face financing problems within the next ten to fifteen years, but it certainly isn’t “broke” now. Just ask any senior.
Medicaid – It certainly isn’t “broke” if you qualify for it, because, again, without it, the people who do qualify would not be able to afford health care of any kind (which is why the program exists in the first place). Moreover, since it is administered by each individual state, this program isn’t really a federal program at all.
Social Security – Ask the millions of seniors how “broke” it is. Many literally live on the monthly payments they receive. Others use the payments to supplement a healthy income they are still getting from the jobs they have. True, it too will face financing issues in a generation or so, but it is a far cry from “broke” currently.
U.S. Post Office – Let’s see, for 44 cents anyone in the country can send a letter (or a greeting card) anywhere else in the country (a country with over 300 million residents and with a land mass that extends almost half-way around the globe) and know that it will arrive at its destination in a matter of days. How is that system “broke”?
Cash for clunkers – I’m not sure how this one got added to the sign, but I suppose the idea is to claim that the concept was dumb, because a lot of people got to trade in a perfectly fine car just to be able to buy a new one. True, but the program did seem to rejuvenate General Motors, which was its goal. So, again, how was it “broke”?
Of course, the whole idea behind the sign is the innate bias against any government program. In that regard, I am frankly surprised that the biggest government program of all was left off of it. Nothing the federal government does in domestic programs comes close to matching the money spent on our military establishment. And while we are still able to bomb any country at will with seeming impunity, I’d say our current and long-standing excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan (which the president has decided will now continue for who knows how long) are far closer to “broke” status than any of the programs listed on the protester’s sign.
But let me not stop here, because in order to be “fair and balanced” on the subject of “broke,” we need to consider a few other possible contenders. And so, here’s the sign I would promote as an alternative –
Private Deregulated Banking System – Broke
Private Auto Industry – Broke
Private Deregulated Home Mortgage Industry – Broke
Private Deregulated Airline Industry – Broke
Private Deregulated Savings and Loan Industry – Broke
Private Unregulated Health Care Insurance Industry – Broke
In the end, what’s “broke” may all be a matter of perspective. For doctrinaire disciples of the Chicago School of economics, anything that has even a hint of government involvement is automatically “broke,” because, by definition all aspects of the economy should be run entirely by private enterprise.
On the other hand, for those who are committed socialists, anything in an economic system that is not run and owned by the government is “broke.”
For everyone else, whether a product or service results from private enterprise, government programs or some combination of the two should be far less important than whether the thing we are getting is of sufficient quality to justify the expense required to receive it.
In a vibrant economy, there is a role for private enterprise and for government. And both are capable of working well or of becoming “broke.”