Posts Tagged ‘ policy ’

Yes, Republicans are to blame for the polarization in Congress

Of course since I’m a Democrat I’d think this, right? But hear me out, there is very good evidence showing that Republicans have become radically conservative over the past few decades. Democrats, on the other hand, have remained a centrist party and in many ways also have gotten more conservative. Our current problems with political polarization are almost entirely to blame on a Republican Party that has marched steadily to the right for over three decades. Additionally, anyone who says “both sides have become extreme lately” is clearly wrong.

A new study by two political scientists provides a good visualization of this trend:

Starting roughly in 1976, Republicans started becoming an unprecedentedly conservative party. In good years the GOP becomes more conservative, in bad years it becomes more conservative, without fail. Contrast that to the Democratic Party, which was about the same distance from the political center in the mid 60s as they were in 2009-2011. (Unlike with Republicans, electoral victories tend to move Democrats closer to center, while those representatives left after electoral defeats lend to be more liberal)

This is a nice graph of this trend, but more importantly, here are concrete examples of this phenomenon.

Health Care

The health care plan passed by Democrats in 2010 was much more conservative than the one proposed by Clinton in the early 1990s or any of other earlier Democratic plans. In fact, Obama’s plan was first proposed by Republicans in response to Clinton’s plan and first enacted into law by Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Today, Republicans say that same health care plan represents the death of liberty in America. Clearly on this issue, Republicans have moved to the right to oppose a plan they once favored and Democrats have moved right by passing a plan that Republicans once favored.

The Environment

You may remember that it was Republican Richard Nixon who first created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today, it is the Republicans who are talking about repealing the EPA or putting coal and oil executives in charge of the agency. This is clearly a major rightward turn for the party.

In the debate over man-made climate change, Republicans have gone from proposing solutions to the problem to denying that it even exists. A cap-and-trade solution to limiting carbon emissions was (you guessed it) originally a Republican idea. The 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain even went around the country advertising cap-and-trade as his solution to climate change. In 2009-2010 Democrats moved and adopted cap-and-trade instead of their old idea of a carbon tax. Predictably, Republicans now say cap-and-trade is the greatest job-destroyer in America. On this issue (again) both parties have moved right.

Taxes

It used to be, taxes were just the way we paid for the things we wanted government to do. Democrats and Republicans went back and forth over how taxes should be structured and over their levels sometimes, but no party has ever denounced taxes as a moral evil and as antithetical to American values the way the current Republican Party is. Every Republican president up until Bush Sr. raised taxes at some point in his Presidency (to my knowledge). Now to do so would be blasphemy.

Democrats have also moved to the right on the issue of taxes.  Democrats raised taxes under Clinton before Bush Jr. lowered them in 2001  and 2003. Now Democrats don’t even want to raise all of our taxes rates to the place they were under Clinton, they only want to raise taxes on those making more than $200,000/year. On this issue as well, both parties have moved far to the right. Republicans now see taxes as the devil and Democrats refuse to raise taxes on 98% of the population!

Immigration

In the 2000s, some Republicans favored compassionate and fair immigration reform. Now, you’d be hard pressed for a Republican spouting anything less than “round ’em all up,, shove  ’em in jail and post automatic machine guns to mow down anyone trying to cross the border.” Republicans are even against giving citizenship to children who were brought to the US as children have lived here almost their entire lives and agree to go to college or serve in the US military (a bill called the DREAM Act).

Under former President Bush, many Republicans favored an even looser version of the DREAM Act. This version would have only required prospective DREAMers to graduate high school and did not include many other provisions restricting access to this benefit. Democrats still favor the DREAM Act, but Republican support for it has all but disappeared.

Conclusion

Looking only at issues overlooks procedural ways the Republicans have increased polarization, such as how they now filibuster every small issue that gets brought up in the Senate, where before only major issues were seen as deserving of a filibuster.

As should be obvious, Republicans have moved sharply to the right over the past couple decades. I cannot think of any issue where  the Democrats have similarly moved to the left (except on gay rights, I suppose). As studies show and party rhetoric confirms, Republicans are mostly responsible for the polarization and dysfunction in our government today. The solution to these problems involves finding someway to change the Republican Party.

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The United States has the worst health care system in the developed world

The title of this post is not hyperbole or an exaggeration. Judging by cost, access and quality of outcomes, the three metrics commonly used to evaluate a health care system, the United States does have the worst system in the developed world. On two of the three metrics (cost and access), the US is not even close to its competitors and the final one (outcomes) is a bit debatable but it still looks like the US is on bottom. (Let’s define “developed world” as the US, Canada, Europe and the highly developed Pacific Rim countries) I’ll knock out the easy metrics first.

Cost

Cost is where the US does the worst, and I mean the absolute worst compared to any other country. You’d think that since we aren’t even covering 18% of our population, our total health care costs would be less than most other countries, but as it turns out, our market-focused health care economy is remarkably inefficient and wasteful. Here is our per capita spending on health care:

From the Kaiser Family Foundation

The price the US pays for its strange private/public jumble of a health care system is that we spend twice what the Europeans spend for (less of) the same product. We almost spend three times what Japan and Italy do per capita. There is no question that the US has the most expensive health care system in the world by far. We spend huge sums of money on health care that could be going towards education, consumer spending, capital for new businesses or any other productive end. Instead, we waste a lot of money on health care for no apparent gain. Clearly, our approach to health care has failed on this front.

Now, the counter-argument to this is that we may spend a lot on health care, but at least we have choice in our health care market. At least the government doesn’t control our health care economy. But even if choice and limiting government intrusion into the marketplace are your goals, the US still fails miserably.

As for choice, how many Americans actually have a choice in their health insurer? Everyone over 65 doesn’t. They have Medicare. People that get health care through their job don’t have a choice. They get whatever their employer chooses for them. People with pre-existing conditions have no choice. They get no insurance unless they are lucky enough to qualify for a government plan. The poor have no choice. They are lucky if they qualify for Medicaid. The few people with a small say in their insurance provider are the handful of healthy (and somewhat wealthy) people under 65 whose employer does not provide them coverage. If that describes you then congratulations!  You get to choose from among a bunch of inexplicably complicated plans with astronomically high prices. And you better hope that your provider doesn’t find a loophole that will allow it to retroactively cancel your coverage once you get sick!

As for limiting government spending (the most important thing to many conservatives) the American system also surprisingly…. fails. Take a look:

US public sector spending exceeds or matches countries with universal coverage

Government health care plans control just as much of the US economy as they do everywhere else. That’s right. The US public sector spends just as much to cover the very old, *some* of the very poor and some veterans as most countries do to cover their entire population!

Our health care system is so inefficient that even our government spends more than most other countries’ governments. Amazing. The US could, for instance, completely adopt Canada’s health care system and actually see government spending drop as a result. If the US switched to a universal health care system, conceivably, we could reduce government spending as a proportion of the economy.

Access

The US is the only developed nation that does not guarantee its citizens access to health care. About 50 million Americans or one-sixth of the population lacks health insurance. A 2009 study found that there were 45,000 annual deaths in the US because of a lack of health insurance. That’s the equivalent of fifteen different 9/11 terror attacks every year. We expend countless billions to protect our citizens from terrorists. Why not do the same to battle a much larger killer?

Beyond the deaths (which are obviously extremely regrettable and preventable), the US suffers diminished economic productivity because American workers lack access to the care they need and must stay home from work or come to work sick. This is an economic cost that other countries do not have to bear because their citizens can always go to the doctor or buy drugs when they are ill.

Our labor market is also much less efficient than other countries’ market. Since most health insurance is given out through an employer in the US, workers may find themselves in a state of “job lock.” Job lock occurs when a worker wants to leave a job but cannot because he cannot get comparable health benefits anywhere else. For example, if an entrepreneur has a pre-existing health condition he cannot leave his menial job to start a new company because he will have no way to pay his health bills. The US health care system stifles innovation and creativity, and distorts the labor market.

 Quality

As far as quality goes, the US has a multi-tier system. The top tier, which only the most wealthy can afford, probably offers the best health care outcomes in the world. But we are looking at systems as a whole here and not just their effect on the top 1-5%. As a whole, our health care system delivers much worse outcomes than most other advanced systems.

For example, the US has a life expectancy of 78.3 years from birth. That’s good enough to put us in a tie with the communists living on Cuba. We’re ranked #36, which puts us behind the rich Pacific Rim nations and every European country that wasn’t formerly part of the Soviet bloc.  The US ranks similarly on measures of infant mortality. These deaths are immensely tragic, not the least because they are so preventable.

Recently, a study came out that ranked 19 developed nations according to how well they prevented the deaths of citizens with treatable conditions. “In establishing their rankings, the researchers considered deaths before age 75 from numerous causes, including heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, diabetes, certain bacterial infections and complications of common surgical procedures.” Predictably, the US ranked last. 19th out of 19.

There are differing opinions, of course. One of the most common responses is that the US system is better at treating disease once it has  been identified. Sometimes people claim that care  is “rationed” in other countries. One example put forward is that the US has higher survival rates for some types of cancer than many other countries. Many claim that this shows that treatments in the US are superior to those in other countries. It is very likely that this is not the case.

Uniquely, the US over-diagnoses certain types of cancer through excessive screenings. These screenings lead to an inflated number of diagnoses and the over-treatment of small abnormalities that would never develop into cancer if left alone. This problem has even led prominent doctors groups to recommend that their members cut back on the number of screenings and tests performed on populations who are not usually at-risk of developing cancer. Naturally, you are very likely to survive if you never actually had cancer in the first place, and that’s probably why the US ranks so highly.

As for other measures of care being “rationed,” it would seem to be the US that is doing the rationing. The US has fewer hospital beds per person than almost every other developed country. And despite our higher salaries, the US has fewer doctors per person than almost every other country. As a result, we get fewer annual doctor’s visits than most.

All in all, Americans pay much, much more for health care that is not available to the entire country and which produces no better results than in other developed nations. Clearly, this is a system in need of monumental reforms.

(Edit: Added some more information under “Quality”)

Why government spending should continue (or increase!)

Yesterday I argued that our current national impulse to cut government spending is hurting the economy. The numbers clearly say that falling government spending on all levels has hurt our economic growth and our job growth over the past 6 months to a year. This elicited a response from a commenter who strongly disagreed with my point. I think it would be good to discuss and completely respond to his reasoning. This is not to pick on the commenter, but because I think that his/her view is held by many (not just on the right, either!) and it needs to be responded to. He/she said:

Spending = borrowing = debt = interest payments = more debt = no growth, just interest payments building up and up and up.

When the market wises up to the scam that is the US economy, bond prices will tank, interest rates will soar, and then the US will find out what a scam (so called) Keynesian economics is!

The commenter points out that typically, the more the government spends (ignoring tax rates), the more debt it builds up, and when it has a lot of debt, the government’s interest payments go up. He also alludes to the fact that when the government’s interest rates rise, so do interest rates in the private sector (like for bank accounts, mortgages, car loans). Since high interest rates are generally bad for a damaged economy like ours, he (like many) thinks we should stop deficit spending.

The major problem with this economic view

…is that the US government has engaged in record amounts of deficit spending recently and interest rates have actually remained at record lows. Right now, the government can borrow money almost for free! Government bond prices are set by the free market, and right now if you invest $100 dollars in a 3 month government bond you will get back $0.01 at maturity. Investors are rushing to be paid one cent on a hundred dollar loan! Far from being a “scam,” investing in US government debt is investing in the US economy, which is the safest investment in the world. People want to buy US government debt so badly that they will LOSE  MONEY (once you account for inflation) in order to buy our debt.

But maybe this is only temporary and investors will “wake up to the scam that is the US economy,” as the commenter suggests. If that happens, investors could demand higher interest rates and our borrowing costs could increase substantially. However, that’s not likely to happen for a long time. As Dylan Matthews explains, “currently, the average maturity of U.S. debt is 62 months, almost a year less than its peak of 72 months in 2001.” Investors are betting that interest rates will not rise above their current low, low levels until late 2016. US debt is almost as secure now as it was in 2001 when we were enjoying the Clinton surplus!

The other side of the equation

The commenter and most of the anti-spenders like to point out that “spending=debt=interest payments*(sometimes)*=more debt” but what they conveniently forget is the  other side of the equation. The other side is that government spending=increased demand=more jobs=economic growth=more  jobs, etc. As much as the anti-spenders hate to admit it, deficit spending has both positive and negative effects. The positive effects are that when the government spends money it employs people and buys goods, which stimulates the economy. The negative effects come into play when interest rates rise. The task for policy-makers is to find out which side of the equation is greater if they want to deficit spend.

So how does all that apply to our current situation? Well as I’ve established, there are almost zero drawbacks to deficit spending right now, while the potential beneficial effects of deficit spending are huge! The equation is hugely balanced in favor of deficit spending. The market and the economy are desperate, desperate for more government spending. Here’s Paul Krugman on this subject:

Those plunging interest rates and stock prices say that the markets aren’t worried about either U.S. solvency or inflation. They’re worried about U.S. lack of growth.

Ezra Klein sounds the same note as well:

As the markets shake and churn, investors are rushing to buy Treasury debt. They’re lending to us money for three-months for nearly nothing, and for 10 years at 2.4 percent. That’s the lowest rate since the 1950s. (emphasis mine) The problem for the market is that the American government is not giving them enough debt to buy.

But the problem for American stocks, for American companies, and for the American economy is we’re not giving the market any reason to believe we’ll recover anytime soon. Where is the demand going to come from? Who is going to buy their products?

There you have it, government spending is just not a problem the market is worried about. Companies don’t care about US debt, they care about people buying their products! Who is going to start buying their products? The government is the only entity who has the ability to rescue the economy from this economic slowdown. The questions that policy makers and indeed all Americans need to consider are: Do you want to be stuck in a downturn for years and years to come? Or do you want the government to stop cutting spending and invest in American firms and workers? Do you want the government to twiddle its thumbs while it has the weapons to slay this economic dragon? Or do you want the government to use the considerable tools in its arsenal to jump-start the economy?

(Update 08/06: I wanted to make it clear that obviously deficit spending cannot go on forever. In an ideal world, the government would increase spending to solve our short-term economic woes while also setting in place a comprehensive plan to bring our long-term deficits under control. That’s the best of both worlds)

Why voter ID laws are harmful and unnecessary

The Republican legislators who were swept into state legislatures across the country in 2010 have, by and large, attempted to enact laws requiring voters to present a state-issued photo ID every time they vote. These laws will “ensure the integrity of our voting process”  by preventing voter fraud, which, we are told, is “a real problem.” Those are the words of Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Secretary of State, who wrote a voter ID law that Kansas approved this year and has been used as a model for many other states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas. Missouri’s Secretary of State, Robin Carnahan, opposes a proposed voter ID law in Missouri, saying it could disenfranchise up to 230,000 registered Missouri voters who do not possess any of the forms of photo ID required by the bill. Let’s take a look at their arguments. Kobach’s view is in an op-ed here and Carnahan’s is summarized here. Continue reading