Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Obamacare's (Un?)Constitutionality

The Supreme Court has started hearing the initial arguments on "Obamacare" this week - the central issue being whether or not the individual mandate (buy health insurance or pay a fee) is constitutional. If you assume pre-Obamacare health care laws are constitutional, I've never understood how you could think Obamacare is not. But this interview with one of the main legal experts opposing the mandate helped me understand that opposition a bit better. Maybe it comes down to a very fundamental difference in thinking...

A health insurance mandate already exists: Medicare. I have to pay for it. With Obamacare, the difference is that it's a private insurance company instead of the government. From the perspective of government power versus individual liberty, they are effectively the same. If anything, Obamacare is less intrusive because there are multiple choices for your insurance plan. The government also already gives tax credits for employers to buy private health insurance, and that's effectively the same as Obamacare's mandate. In both cases, someone has the option of buying insurance or paying extra taxes. This is why I always figured that if existing law is constitutional, then Obamacare must be as well.

But here's what Randy Barnett, the lawyer from the interview, said: "Just because the government does have the power to do x, doesn’t mean they have the power to do y, even if y has the same effect as x." That seems like a simple idea, and the logic is quite basic and valid, yet for some reason it really took me by surprise. In my mind, when 2 things have the same result, I consider the differences to be unimportant - a technicality or semantics. I guess I just need to remember that not everyone thinks that way. Maybe the ultimate divide of opinion on the constitutionality of the mandate can really boil down to whether you focus more on the ends or the means... (though I suspect most people just decide based on whether they like the law).

Anyway, for anyone who thinks our pre-Obamacare health care policy was constitutional but the mandate in Obamacare is not, I'm curious to hear opinions on a couple of things:

1. Instead of making you pay some extra taxes if you don't buy health insurance, what if the bill just raised taxes on everyone and then offered a tax break for those who buy insurance such that the benefit/penalty was the exact same? Would that be constitutional?

2. Would it be constitutional if there were a public option? That way, you don't have to buy something from a private company; you can choose to get it from the government just like you're already forced to do with Medicare.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Becoming Republican

I originally wrote this as part of my previous post: Book Plug: Launching The Innovation Renaissance. But this went off-topic and seemed like it should be its own thing...

Reality is complicated, and trying to reduce all politics to the one-dimensional left/right scale can't represent all the possible solutions to the world's various problems very well. I'm a Democrat in that I see them as the best option available, not the best option possible. And not because I'm ideologically opposed to all things "conservative". The parties do change over time, so I often wonder in what ways they could change where I would start to lean more Republican. And some of the ideas in Launching The Innovation Renaissance are a direction the Republican party could potentially go over time that could win my vote.

I don't understand the less-govt-everywhere-except-more-in-the-military mentality that currently dominates the Republican party. It scares me when Santorum acts like we should base our government on his religion. It scares me when Ron Paul talks about economics. And I do believe the government should redistribute money to reduce poverty. But I could support a platform of reducing welfare+defense so that we could invest more in R&D and education. And I wish that political party existed.

Book Plug: Launching The Innovation Renaissance

If you are interested in politics/economics, read Launching The Innovation Renaissance. The e-book is only $2.99, and it's short and easy.. only 1137 "locations" on the kindle, and the book actually ends 70% through that (the rest is references). The author is a libertarian-ish economics professor, but I think people of all political persuasions can find something interesting and convincing in this book.

The book argues that our society needs to be more structured in favor of technological advancement and gives a few suggestions for how our government should change and why. It gives really interesting statistics on how times/places of high innovation truly help everyone as well as how different policies contribute or hold back. Most of the arguments are really persuasive with data to back it up. One example that was particularly interesting was why a much lighter patent system would foster more innovation. I was disappointed with his arguments for deregulation though; on that part he seemed to just explain the logic of his thinking but without many concrete examples to show that what he claims is actually true.

The book is conservative, but it doesn't really match up well with a particular political party. He describes the basic functions of government as split between innovation, warfare, and welfare, where we can't realistically put much funding into all three. Republicans generally want more spending in "warfare" at expense of the other areas, Democrats do the same with "welfare", and Libertarians usually just argue for a reduced government role in all three. But this book argues for increased government funding in innovation which would require reduction in both "warfare" and "welfare". One convincing way that he argues for this is by saying that Republicans/Democrats are usually arguing over zero-sum games: how to shift the same amount of resources within society between the wealthy and the poor. But focusing on innovation is win-win.. it benefits everyone.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The GOP and Obamacare

One of the most persistent themes in the Republican primaries is how bad, socialist, and unconstitutional Obamacare (universal health care via a federal insurance mandate) is. And many Republicans talk about how this is a big weakness for Romney since he passed the same basic plan as governor of Massachusetts. He now tries to pretend it's different because he doesn't support it at the federal level, but that isn't true.

What so many people still don't realize is that this isn't just Romney. 3 of the 4 remaining GOP candidates supported this idea at the federal level and seemingly forgot they ever supported it once it became known as "Obamacare". The only difference between Romney and Gingrich and Santorum here is only that Romney was successful in passing it. Newt even openly supported it as recently as 2009.

In fact, "Obamacare" used to be a mainstream Republican plan for health reform as opposed to the type Clinton tried to do. The Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act on 1993 was sponsored by Republicans still in Congress. Bush Sr had a plan for health reform via an individual mandate, as did Bob Dole. And Democrats opposed it; Obama even opposed the individual mandate during his presidential campaign.

The whole history of attempts at universal health care has been a lot like this. Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) was the first president who tried to pass universal health care, via a single-payer system. Then that became the Democratic plan that Republicans opposed. The GOP later switched to supporting an employer mandate; that was Nixon's plan but Democrats opposed it out of preference to a single payer system. Later the Democrats came around to supporting an employer mandate instead - that's largely what "Hillarycare" was. By that time, the GOP moved on to supporting the individual mandate and opposing an employer mandate. Then, of course, Obama proposed a plan based on the individual mandate, and suddenly the whole GOP is against it.

Now, this doesn't mean it's not OK to oppose Obamacare as a Republican. Just because it used to have broad support in the Republican party doesn't mean every Republican supported it. But it does mean that when the Republican candidates talk about how Obamacare is some shockingly socialist, extreme, unconstitutional worst-idea-ever, they are just lying (with the exception of Ron Paul). Opposing Obamneycare is not a reason to support Santorum or Gingrich over Romney. And the fact that so many people are unaware of this is a great example of the failure of the media (some of it, at least).