Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Profits and poison

I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s recent weekly address in which he threatened the anti-trust exemption for health insurance companies. There are two other aspects of Obama’s talk that also concern me: his dislike of profits and his concern that people will make the “wrong” decision.

The White House summary of his address highlights both those aspects.

In his weekly address, President Barack Obama praised the progress that has been made on health insurance reform, and spoke out against those who defend the status quo in order to score political points and protect their profits. With reform the closest it has ever been to becoming law, the insurance companies are rolling out deceptive ads, paying for misleading studies, and flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists. Now, Washington needs to serve the American people, not the special interests.

Private companies are supposed to make a profit; that’s why they exist. If the President believes that health insurance should be the province of non-profits he should simply say so: that’s a perfectly reasonable position. Instead he attempts to keep one foot in each camp. He is unwilling to back the elimination of for-profit health insurance companies but he clearly believes that it is wrong for an insurance company to make a profit:

The fact is, the insurance industry is making this last-ditch effort to stop reform even as costs continue to rise and our health care dollars continue to be poured into their profits, bonuses, and administrative costs that do nothing to make us healthy – that often actually go toward figuring out how to avoid covering people. And they’re earning these profits and bonuses while enjoying a privileged exception from our anti-trust laws, a matter that Congress is rightfully reviewing.

It seems crystal clear from this that Obama believes a profit-making health insurance company is unacceptable. He should simply say so and push for either a single-payer system or the forced conversion of all health insurance companies to non-profits. As it is he is supporting the worst of both worlds: the continued existence of for-profit companies which are considered pariahs if they make a profit.

The other aspect of Obama’s remarks that troubles me is his concern that people will make the “wrong” decision. He is essentially arguing:

- the health reform bill that is going to be written by Congress is the right thing to do;

- the insurance companies are lying about what that legislation will do;

- the insurance companies are spending money to lobby legislators to vote against the legislation; and

- “folks on cable television who know better” are repeating insurance company lies.

As a result, Obama is afraid that Congressmen will be misled by the lies and tempted by the money and vote against the health reform bill that is going to be written.

This is distressing. Obama’s formulation leaves no room for a legislator (or for that matter an insurance company executive or a private citizen) who truly believes the health reform bill that is going to be written is not the “right” decision. Anyone who opposes the bill must be doing so either because he is so stupid he believes the lies of the insurance industry or because he is so venal he would vote against what he knows to be right in order to profit financially. There is no place in Obama’s formulation for a Congressman who prefers smaller government to larger; who thinks mandates are unConstitutional; who believes a different plan would be far superior; or who believes the health reform bill that is going to be written will end up costing money we can’t afford to spend. No, anyone who opposes the health reform bill that is going to be written must be stupid or venal or both because after all anyone who is intelligent and honest will clearly see that the health care bill that is going to be written is the only “right” thing to do.*

This is an attempt to poison the well. Those who oppose the bill cannot be doing so for valid reasons because the bill is clearly the “right” thing. Therefore anyone who opposes it must be doing so because they’ve been lied to or bribed. And of course the statement that “the bill is clearly the ‘right’ thing” cannot be challenged because anyone who challenges it is either stupid enough to believe lies or has been bought off.

This approach is very dangerous although hardly unique to Obama. It delegitimizes all political opposition. Ideological differences are recast as cover for stupidity and venality. Differing interpretations of data, different predictions about an uncertain future must always be lies. The idea that honest people can honestly disagree is found ridiculous. It is the very antithesis of John McCain’s request:

... if an American feels the decision was unwise, then they should state their opposition, and argue for another course. It is your right and your obligation. I respect you for it. I would not respect you if you chose to ignore such an important responsibility. But I ask that you consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty.

Americans deserve more than tolerance from one another, we deserve each other's respect ...

If we truly reach the point where we believe those who disagree with us about how the country should be governed cannot possibly have any valid reasons for doing so; if we decide that all those who do not believe as we do are either stupid or venal; then we are one short step away from excluding our opponents from the political arena. If we know what is right and they cannot possibly have any legitimate reason to think otherwise, why should we even let them speak much less let them vote? After all, once we know what is right we really don’t need to hear what anyone else thinks.


* I suspect that Obama does not intend his denunciation to extend to those who argue against the health reform bill that will be written because they prefer a single-payer system or a public option. I don’t think Obama would consider people who support those positions either stupid or venal. I imagine he would consider them very smart and very honest - but unfortunately unrealistic.

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