25
Nov
09

It’s not the fall that gets you…

…it’s the sudden stop at the end.

(I did surely try to keep my wharrgarbl out of this post, and I almost succeeded.  Please proceed with caution.)

Megan McArdle comments on (Michael O’Hare’s comments on) the budget cuts to the University of California system:

People plan their lives around public programs.  Allowing an unsustainable program to run until it comes to a screeching halt is often worse than having no program.  The UC system is very good, and I am in no way suggesting that we would be better off if it didn’t exist.  But many, many California students, and their parents, planned their lives around a reasonable expectation of what in-state tuition would be.  The protests are childish, but the rage underneath them is understandable:  if you suddenly have to leave school because legislators have broken your implied social contract, you’re probably going to be pretty mad.

California could have dealt with its budget problems gradually–it’s not like you couldn’t see this mismatch coming, unless you thought that asset prices would always rise at 10% a year.  But legislators wanted to give voters goodies now, and voters rewarded them for it.  Now everyone’s getting what they asked for:  disaster.

I tend to think of post-secondary transfers as one of the better ways government can spend other people’s money; of course, I’m a grad student and a faculty brat, so I’m heavily biased.  The argument remains valid:

  1. When people are promised something, they plan around it and react badly when it goes away.  This is as true of public programmes as it is of anything else; perhaps more so, because the seal of government approval gives an expectation of permanency not present elsewhere.  This is why Social Security is called the third rail of American politics: people plan on government support when they retire, and will fight tooth and nail to keep that support and the sense of stability it provides.
  2. That “seal of government approval” doesn’t mean a programme’s going to be permanent or sustainable.  People really do have to pay for these things, and if whoever’s running the programme — public or private — spends beyond their means for long enough, it’ll go bust.  Getting back to Social Security, even the SSA itself sees major problems with Social Security and Medicare.  I’d be flabbergasted to discover that their in-house politicized predictions aren’t wildly optimistic.
  3. Sudden cutbacks to or withdrawals of service are more devastating than planned, principled draw-downs — if only because it’s harder to prepare for them both practically and emotionally.

This neatly ties together two maddening thoughts I’ve had buzzing around my head, but haven’t properly articulated until now:

Making something a government entitlement in no way guarantees access. California’s discovering this with post-secondary education.  New York City already knows about it with rent controls.  Fuck knows Zimbabwe’s well-acquainted with the concept when applied to food.  Governments can’t override the basic principles of economics.  You’re gonna have to pay for it somehow.

This attitude really puts my dick in a knot when applied to the U.S. debate on universal health care.  “We want to make sure that everyone has access to care, and no-one goes bankrupt paying for it!”  Sounds good; how do you plan to get there?  “We’re gonna make government guarantee it!”

Um.

I’ve spent the last 29 years in Canada, which some would tout as the promised land of single-payer health care.  (These folks are, by and large, more intelligent than those who insist that the whole goddamn health care system be government-run; I’m looking at YOU, Great Britain.  Some of them, um, aren’t, but let’s not judge the whole field by their most obnoxious demagogue.)  Now, Canadian health care is by and large damn good, and it’s done well by me for nearly three decades.  However: every single debate over health care to which I’ve been a party in this country has revolved around two issues:

  1. “We’re not spending enough money on health care!” vs. “We’re spending too much money on health care!”
  2. “OMG TEH BRANE DRANE!  All our doctors and nurses are moving to the States where they make more money!”

Leaving aside the question of which system is better (answer: neither), it seems obvious to me that simply giving health-care over to the government fails to remove it from basic questions like “how much does this cost?” and “who’s going to pay for it, then?”  It is not sufficient simply to claim that “well, the gummint’s gonna pick up the tab” when asked how “universal” (yeah, right) health care is going to work out.  And it is pure mean-spirited vicious ignorance to pretend that the happy situation of “Uncle Sam’s gonna pay for it” will persist for longer than, say, a decade or two: if we can’t even keep Social Security running, how are we going to be able to pile on another entitlement programme?

Lest I seem partisan about this question: I’d like to ask any Republican congresshitbags in my audience what the fuck was going on with Medicare Title D?  Andrew Sullivan points this out rather well, even though I think his numbers for the health-care bill are low (just about every health-care bill that’s been proposed since spring has gamed the CBO reports): opposing unsustainable profligacy now that one of your ‘uns is out of office doesn’t make up for your own unsustainable profligacy.

And it’s the unsustainable part that really gnaws at my prostate.  The language surrounding things like Medicare D is serenely self-satisfied, almost reverent: it congratulates itself for providing an iron bulwark against the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life that will hold until the misty and indefinite future.  Ain’t so, buddy! That bulwark is made of balsa and will last until we run out of money, and if you can’t see “run out of money” in the demographics of Baby Boomers retiring you’re willfully fucking blind.

(What’s the typical answer to funding questions about health care?  “We’ll force young healthy adults who don’t need it to buy health insurance, or they’ll go to jail!”  Super.  Just what my generation needs to pull the continent out of an economic crisis brought on by well-meaning voters from the 1930s to the mid-1990s: another coerced financial obligation we’ll never claw back.)

-*pant, pant, pant*-

Okay, I’m done now.  Let’s move on to my second point of irritation:

OMG teh libertarianz r gunna scrap it allz!!!11one! Uh, no, not so much really.  When I discuss politics with, for example, racist protectionist union-supporters (but I repeat myself), they often insist to me that — if I had my way and a bunch of libertarians formed the next majority government — I’d want to repeal all immigration laws, effective immediately.

Okay, bad example: I would.  I think Canada’s a fantastic country, and anyone who wants to be part of it should be welcome here.

But there are other aspects about which I’m less strident.  Consider, for example, fire departments.  I’m often told that I want to disband every fire department in the country immediately, because libertarians hate kittens.  ‘T’ain’t so.  Among other things, as Ms. McArdle mentioned: people plan on and depend upon services that have been promised them.  I’m not foolish enough to think that it would be a good idea simply to yank those carpets out from underfoot the greater part of Canadian society; I’m not stupid enough that I’d try it if given the opportunity; and I resent the implication that libertarianism boils down to “NO U CAN’T HAZ A TAXES; NOT YOURS!

Now I think I’m officially a curmudgeon.  Get off my lawn, you damn kids.

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