William H. Stoddard of San Diego, California has some interesting commentary on the state of the debate between Clinton and Obama on what they want for US health care policy
Health care policy is a major issue in the Democratic Party’s choice of a presidential candidate. The final debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, in Ohio, spent a reported 15 minutes on it. Yet the mainstream news media in the United States consistently report that there are only very minor differences between the positions of the two candidates. Given this, the argument looks like little more than semantic quibbling over the meaning of the word “universal,” all too typical of Clinton’s struggle to contest Obama’s unexpected rivalry for the nomination.
But the mainstream news media have it wrong. There is, in fact, a vitally important difference between the two positions, though one that their worldview makes them ill equipped to recognize. The difference is that Clinton would compel everyone to purchase health insurance; Obama would not. The standard label for this difference in health policy debates is “mandate,” for what Clinton wants.
Clinton has been evasive about exactly how she would compel the purchase of insurance – which is not surprising, as talking about punishing voters is not a good selling point in an election. The state of Massachusetts, which has a mandate, imposes fines on adults who do not have health insurance. Clinton has not talked about fines, but has suggested garnishing wages or making enrollment compulsory on admission to any hospital.
Of course, Clinton promises to make health insurance affordable to everyone, through subsidies and through massive new regulation of the insurance industry. So does Obama. But what if their plans do not work out? Under Obama’s plan, adults who thought even subsidized health insurance cost more than they could pay would remain uninsured, and at least be no worse off. Under Clinton’s plan, they would be forced to sign up, or penalized for not doing so – and either way they would be hurt. And given that Clinton predicts that fifteen million Americans would remain uncovered under Obama’s voluntary plan, it seems that she anticipates that fifteen million people would have to be hurt financially to make her plan viable – or, perhaps, simply to justify her in calling it “universal.” Obama, in fact, has fairly clearly called attention to this difference. In the debate, he said, “We still do not know how Senator Clinton intends to enforce a mandate, and if we don’t know the level of subsidies that she’s going to provide, then you can have a situation, which we are seeing right now in the state of Massachusetts, where people are being fined for not having purchased health care but choose to accept the fine because they still can’t afford it, even with the subsidies…”
For libertarians, of course, which plan is less bad is a fairly straightforward question: the one that allows a measure of free choice is a lesser evil than the one based on coercive social engineering. And a non-trivial part of the electorate may feel the same way; where hard-core Democrats often favour Clinton’s views, independent voters are reported as less supportive of mandates.
But there are hard questions about mandates even from the perspective of the Democratic Party itself. On one hand, people between fifty and sixty-five (where Medicare comes into effect) consume substantially more health services than younger people. Younger people are more likely to decide their low health risks do not justify paying for insurance. So forced enrolment would compel many younger people to pay for insurance they would not purchase voluntarily – but the benefit of enlarging the pool and lowering insurance costs would go disproportionately to older people. And on the other hand, those same older people are much more likely to own houses, to have savings and investments, and in general to be able to afford health care. So what Clinton is proposing is a regressive redistribution of wealth, from the worse off to the better off. It is hard to see how this makes sense within the publicly announced ideology of the Democratic Party.
It does make a kind of sense, though, within a different framework – the version of class analysis propounded by the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, which emphasized conflict between the people who pay for taxes and redistributive schemes, and people who benefit from them.
Who supported the two candidates? Leaving aside the obvious “identity” politics (blacks favoured Obama; women favored Clinton; Hispanics, a group often in conflict with blacks, favoured Clinton), Obama had unusually strong support from younger voters, and Clinton from older voters; that is, Obama from Democrats who would be hurt from Clinton’s scheme, and Clinton from Democrats who would profit from it. And Obama was favoured by Democrats with incomes above $100,000 a year, Clinton by Democrats with incomes below $50,000 a year. This is less obvious, but higher income people are more likely to be self-insured (so that forcing them to buy insurance would be to their disadvantage as they see it). So it looks rather as if Obama has managed to put together an insurance proposal that is more favourable to the very people who have been voting for him all along, and Clinton one that similarly appeals to her base. And the conflict between the two is a struggle between net victims and net beneficiaries of Clinton’s redistributive scheme.
Whether Clinton and Obama recognize this is not clear. Of course, neither of them discusses such issues in their speeches; they both have to present their ideas as being best for everybody. Health policy theorists certainly do not see any conflict – and most of them favour Clinton’s approach. But Obama’s statements suggest that he is aware that mandatory health insurance could hurt some of the worst off people in American society; that he thinks this is a bad idea; and that he is prepared to make an issue of it. In a small way, this seems to make him the lesser evil as far as health care is concerned. If nothing else, he does not seem to cherish the idea of forcing everyone into a comprehensive administrative scheme for its own sake, regardless of the cost to the people it claims to help. Health care policy experts seem to feel otherwise – and so does Clinton. This is, of course, the core position of the established Democratic Party, the authoritarian liberal party of American politics. Obama’s support might represent a realignment of less authoritarian voters increasingly unhappy with the Republican Party’s fall into militarism, theocracy, and big government. The Democrats could only be improved by playing for their continued support.