Paid Family Leave

The view that if something is good or beneficial the government should provide or mandate it is one of the attitudes dividing those who favor limited government from those favoring a more expansive and generous government. The following provides one example.

Ivanka Trump and others make a convincing case for generous paid family leave, Paid-family-leave-is-a-good-national-policy. Stephen A. Schwarzman, Founder, Chairman and CEO Blackstone, explained that Blackstone extended its paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 16 weeks because it improved Blackstone’s bottom line – Paid-maternity-leave-is-worth-every-penny. But for all of the many reasons that big government should be resisted in general (inappropriate incentives for government bureaucrats and the public, special interest capture of policy—i.e. crony capitalism and other forms of corruption, limitations of individual freedom, inefficiency, etc.), there is not a good case for the government to get involve in mandating or subsidizing paid family leave.

Generous paid family leave programs provided by employers are smart business. Companies that offer them will have a competitive edge and thus free market firms will increasingly adopt them. Employers will be free experiment with what works best (for employees’ and companies’ bottom lines), which may well evolve over time as markets and technology change. Governments’ rarely enjoy such flexibility and are often captured by voters best able to influence government to protect their special interests, and that is never the poor. Those who are unemployed don’t need paid leave as they are already receiving unemployment compensation or welfare support for staying at home.

Maternity or family leave has facilitated bringing women into the labor force and thus increased family and national incomes. Given the importance of education to worker productivity and thus individual and national incomes, the state has also undertaken to finance (and unfortunately in most cases also to supply) education for all children from Kindergarten to 12th grade. While upper income families can easily afford to pay for this education for their children, lower income families generally cannot. Thus public financing of such education helps give all children a more equal start in live and also facilitates two worker families. A gap in such assistance exists for preschool children (age 0-5). Financial assistance should also be considered for day care or nursery schools for such children.

In most cases where a policy or practice is good for the general public, it will be adopted by free market participants and better fulfill its purpose than is possible or likely by government.

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Heath Care Reform Fatigue

On average, Americans spend about twice as much on medical care as do Europeans and with poorer results. About half of that cost is paid for by government. If we could get the cost of medical care down to European levels either the government (i.e., tax payers) could stop paying for any of it with no change in the cost to patients, or patients could stop paying anything with no change in the cost to government. Of course it wouldn’t work like that and is much more complicated but it does focus the mind about the issues concerned.

Both the Affordable Care Act of Obama and the current drafts of its replacement by the Republicans are limited to what can be considered budget authorizations so that they can be passed with simple majorities. In June 2015, when the Supreme Court rejected challenges to the constitutionality of parts of the ACA (the insurance mandate), Chief Justice Roberts complained that: “Congress wrote key parts of the Act behind closed doors. . . . Congress passed much of the Act using a complicated budgetary procedure known as ‘reconciliation,’ which limited opportunities for debate and amendment, and bypassed the Senate’s normal 60-vote filibuster requirement. . . . As a result, the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.” Now the Republicans are doing the same thing. Once again George Will is right on target: Why-repeal-and-replace-will-become-tweak-and-move-on/2017/06/27/

This means that the most important elements of health care reform in America—reducing supply side costs—must await other legislation. However, limited market forces are already eating away slowly at the American Medical Association’s (the doctors’ union) self protective strangle hold on the delivery of medical services. The information technology now exists to dramatically improve the quality of service while lowering its cost. Nurse practitioners have already taken over some routine functions previously preserved for MDs. With a growing shortage of doctors, more restrictive practices are likely to be relaxed such as phone consultations, etc.

The focus of the ACA and the current Republic efforts to “repeal and replace” it, has been how best to finance these costs for those financially unable to pay them. The two overriding challenges for this effort should be to adequately target those who need such assistance and in the process to avoid undermining to the extent possible the incentives for both doctors and their patients to provide and to seek the most cost effective care.

There are many small and large details in ACA and proposed Republican replacements that could be changed to improve targeting of financial assistance and the incentives for seeking and delivery cost effective care. See my earlier discussion: A-mistitled-tax-proposal. The largest issues are how best to remove the unfair tax treatment of employer provided health insurance vs. the “private” market and how to insure that the risk pools in the private insurance market include both healthy and sick premium payers.

The point of insurance is to pool the cost of the risk of bad things happening, like breaking a leg or getting sick. Thus the lucky (healthy) share the costs of the unlucky (sick or injured). The group as a whole must pay the total medical costs of all members of the group. It follows that health insurance should be mandatory for every one in a properly defined group. The risk pool of employer provided health insurance consists of the company’s employees, and premiums are set on the basis of the average medical costs of that group. There is no such predefined risk pool for those who buy insurance in the “private” market. The logic of insurance suggests that everyone within each age group should be required to buy insurance at a cost to each that reflects the total medical costs of the full group. The-individual-health-insurance-mandate.

The simplest, cleanest, and most comprehensive way to insure that those unable to pay for whatever medical care they need can do so is to require that all people in their group buy insurance so that those who later don’t need it finance those who do. I have earlier advocated that this approach be integrated as part of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI). A GMI would provide the basis for eliminating most government welfare programs from Social Security and food stamps, to disability and unemployment insurance. But first a brief word about minimum wage laws.

Charles Lane has proposed a sensible approach to balancing the political attraction for legal minimum wages with the economic case against them. He proposes that the issue be removed from the political arena by legislating an automatically adjusting formula for a legal minimum wage that closely matches actual historical wage experience so as to minimize the harm to low skilled and inexperienced (teenagers) workers that would be hurt by higher minimum wages. Forget the $15 minimum wage–here’s what a sensible compromise would look like/2017/06/28

A legal minimum wage does not help the unemployed. A Guaranteed Minimum Income would. It should be paid to every man, woman, and child but the amount might vary with age (but not with income). It could be administered by the Social Security Administration, which it would replace. Saving-social-security. Fixed shares of the GMI would be placed in an individual health insurance account, a pension account, and an education account (school tuition or college fund). The amount deposited to the health savings account would be required to be used to purchase general health insurance and would be sufficient to do so.

The GMI would be paid for from general tax revenue. Clearly our existing, hole riddled income tax laws (both personal and business) are a mess and need to be cleaned up. As I have argued earlier the fairest, least distorting and easiest to administer tax is a consumption tax. I should replace all income taxes, wage taxes and existing sales taxes with one uniform Value Added Tax (VAT). My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017.

Let’s try for better health care that costs less for both patients and tax payers.

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A mistitled tax proposal

The Wall Street Journal used the following headline to an article exploring a healthcare reform issue: “GOP Senators Weigh Taxing Employer-Health Plans”. The article itself is a well-balanced presentation of the issue but the article headline gives a very different impression.  WSJ article

The issue is that employment benefits that are part of a worker’s remuneration, such as health insurance, are excluded from a worker’s taxable income while a self-employed worker who buys their own health insurance (the private market) cannot deduct it’s cost from their taxable income. Both Democrats and Republicans recognize that this is unfair to those who do not receive employer provided health insurance. They differ over how to eliminate this unfair treatment—whether to include the value of health insurance in taxable income for both or to exclude it, as is done with employer provided coverage, for both. No one is proposing taxing health insurance as the article’s title suggests. The following headlines would give a rather different impression for the same proposal: “GOP Senators weigh equal treatment of health plans between employer and self-employed provided plans” or even, “GOP Senators weigh including value of health insurance in taxable income for everyone.”

As I have noted before we must find ways to reduce the cost of health care in America (it costs twice as much as care in Europe with poorer results) while insuring that everyone has reasonable access to it. But how we allocate its cost and structure the payments of those costs determine the incentives faced by the medical care industry that have played a major role in inflating those costs. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/health-care-in-america/

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What should we do with Confederate Heroes?

If you are a Yankee, the recent steps in New Orleans to remove public statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes seem appropriate and obvious. The defeat of Lee and the Southern secessionists fighting the Northern states to preserve slavery represented an important victory for American values. But if we repudiate Lee and his confederate friends how should we approach the slave owning first President, George Washington, or the third President, Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves as well, or the racist 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, who was quoted defending the KKK. It is a serious and important, but not simple, issue.

You could say that I was the equivalent of a Yankee when I was working in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1992-3. In fact, I was indeed a Yankee (“a person who lives in, or is from, the US”). I visited both newly independent, former Soviet Republics six times during those two years with my IMF team of central banking experts. The excited and somewhat bewildered people of these countries were debating what they should do with the many, and sometimes gigantic, statues of Joseph Stalin and Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov). They knew that they would have to live with the Socialist Realist statues and art of the USSR, not to mention the architecture of public buildings, for a longer time, just as we continue to endure the horrible architecture of the 1960s. But could they, should they, have to continue looking at Stalin, the second most deadly ruler in human history. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 40 million people (mostly Russians), ahead of the 30 million deaths under Hitler’s leadership of Germany, but behind the 60 million (mostly Chinese) who died from torture or starvation under the rule of Mao Zedong.

Between my first visit to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (we visited them back to back and were flown in and out in private jets) in April 1992 and my second visit in July-August any remaining portraits of Stalin in public buildings had been removed, as were the smaller public statues. And plans were underway to remove the large ones. The removal of Stalin was a relatively easy call. Lenin was a more difficult issue, rather like George Washington if Washington had gone out of favor. Lenin was the founding leader of the Soviet Union (the Chairman of the Council of Ministers) and of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that preceded it. He was the political theorist who transformed Marxism into the government structures and policies that we knew as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were two of those republics. Lenin continued to be respected if not revered in 1992. My personal interpreter, Steve Lang, photographed as many Lenin statues as he could, suspecting that they would not be around long. Virtually every village had at least one.

As you can see in the picture below a huge portrait of Lenin (about 20 feet tall) still hung in the background of the main auditorium in the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan during our first visit there in April 1992. In the picture we were meeting with the staff of the NBK to report on our recommendations and work plan. I am presenting the Governor of the NBK, Kemelbek Nanayev, with my Adam Smith tie (the image of Smith’s head appears throughout the tie) and Governor Nanayev was reciprocating by giving me his own tie. Our Russian interpreter from Moscow was looking on and so was Lenin. When we returned three and a half months later, the Lenin portrait had been removed.

TieExchange

But Lenin did not disappear as quickly in some other places. He remained on the wall of the Chief Accountant of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, Ms. Abdulina, for some time. Ms. Abdulina was, I would guess, in her early 60s and was very bright and forward looking. After explaining to her the new accounting needs as the NBK issued its own currency and undertook its own monetary policy, she moved quickly to set up a team of young accountants (they were all women) to receive her training in producing a daily balance sheet to reflect bank deposits with the NBK and more broadly what we call reserve money (the monetary liabilities of the central bank). She said that it would be a waste of time trying to retrain the older more senior ones. I liked and respected her very much, but she would not remove Lenin from her office wall. In fact, she never did. On my final visit with the IMF in March 1994 (I have been back many times since under other auspices), Ms. Abdulina had been moved into a new, larger office. Lenin was not displayed on her new office wall. She never had to deliberately remove him from her office wall but now her office was free of him—a very clever finesse.

Lenin was not as directly responsible for the death of millions as was Stalin, but is hardly a lovable character to those of us who grew up in the west. According to George Orwell, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol… was read to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable.” Why Socialists Don’t Believe In Fun Dec. 1943. Nonetheless Soviet citizens had grown up seeing him as the great founder of their country and many could not let go of that easily.

The United States and especially, but not exclusively, its Southern States are now facing the same issue. Should earlier heroes, whose actions or values are now condemned, be removed from the public square?

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu defended his plan to remove Confederate monuments across the city in a speech earlier this month:

“These statues are not just stone and metal. They’re not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy — ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for….

“There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.  For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth….

“Last year, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments about the need to contextualize and remember all of our history…. Remember President Bush’s words, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them….”

We are removing these statues, “Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not some.”

I was blown away by the Mayor’s wonderful speech and urge you to read all of it: New Orleans mayor Landrieu’s address on confederate monuments

Among the statues removed were those of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis about which Mayor Landrieu said: “It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”

What should we and other countries do when past heroes cease to deserve or have our respect? They are, after all, part of our history. The first principle, as articulated by Obama, Bush W, and Mayor Landrieu, is that that history should be told and understood honestly. The second principle is that historical actors should be understood and judged in the context in which they acted.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners in a time in which that was accepted and common as horrible and unacceptable as we see it and know it today. They were otherwise men of great wisdom and courage who deserve our respect. Robert E. Lee inherited slaves but freed them before the Civil War was over. However, he led a war against his country and fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Many former Soviet Republics moved their statues of Lenin and Stalin to historical parks outside of the towns they had occupied where their history could be told honestly and in the context of their time. The statues of Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard will also be relocated away from the heart of New Orleans. I find this to be an appropriate resolution to the pain their presence brought to many of today’s residence of this fascinating city.

 

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Net Neutrality

The issue of net neutrality is almost as complicated as the Internet (the network of networks) itself. As with so many topics, the debate over how best to maximize the development of and benefits from the Internet (email, World Wide Web, and all of the rest) broadly divides between those who support prescriptive rules to guide and govern its operations and those who support a more permissive role for the government stepping in only to correct actual problems. To overstate it a bit, it divides the statists from the free marketers.

The history of what we now call the Internet is quite amazing. History of the Internet. Though governments provided the seed money that got it going (in the U.S. it was the Department of Defense’s ARPANET and later the National Science Foundation’s CSNET and in the U.K. it was the National Physical Laboratory), the U.S. gradually stepped back and allowed the unregulated development of commercial and private uses of the connectivity that was developing and allowed private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to develop the gateways (access) for almost all users (both content providers and consumers) to the Internet. This policy was imbedded in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 signed by President Clinton. That legislation, affirmed that the policy of the United States was: “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet . . . unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”

From the beginning of its break away from its narrow military and scientific uses, all involved in the Internet’s development were committed to it being free and open. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promulgated guidelines to preserve this principle in November 2011. “The FCC’s rules focus on four primary issues:

  • Transparency. Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services;
  • No blocking. Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful Web sites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services; and
  • No unreasonable discrimination. Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.
  • Reasonable network management. ISPs may engage in reasonable network management to maintain a high quality of service for broadband Internet access.” FCC Openness Principles

In this permissive environment the Internet flourished, developing in directions and ways no one could have imagined only a few decades earlier. “But two years ago, the federal government’s approach suddenly changed. The FCC, on a party- line vote, decided to impose a set of heavy-handed regulations upon the Internet. It decided to slap an old regulatory framework called “Title II”—originally designed in the 1930s for the Ma Bell telephone monopoly—upon thousands of Internet service providers, big and small. It decided to put the federal government at the center of the Internet.” Ajit Pai’s Newseum Internet Freedom Speech

What happened? Were the principles of an open Internet with fair access to all suddenly being violated or under threat in 2015? Is the proposed return to the status quo before 2015 really a threat to the principles of net neutrality?

Like all other economic activities, every aspect of the Internet costs money that someone has to pay. Those who built and maintain the Internet Backbone (NTT, Cogent, GTT, etc.), the facilities and networks of the ISPs (Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, etc.), and the content providers (Netflix, Facebook, Snapchat, HBO, etc.) did so to make money (or at the very least to cover their costs). We all know about content and service providers who thought first about how to attract users and only later how to get them to pay (e.g., Facebook and Amazon). They gradually developed their business models over time and some worked and others didn’t. What worked best (most cost efficient use of Internet resources, etc.) was not and could not have been foreseen in the beginning of the Internet’s development. Had the regulations imposed in 2015 been imposed two decades earlier, it is very unlikely we would be enjoying the Web we have today. Freezing or constraining the business models of the key players with very prescriptive regulations is neither necessary nor wise. As Mike Montgomery put it in The Hill: “The digital world moves at the speed of light. To slow that growth to the speed of bureaucracy would have serious negative effects on the burgeoning tech industry which is creating jobs faster than almost any other industry out there.” (see the link below)

Markets function best when profits are maximized by providing the best service at the lowest cost. In such cases, which is the general case, incentives are aligned, i.e. what best serves the supplier/producer also best serves the general public/consumers. Two forces operate to insure that the Internet is open to all. The first was a broad public consensus that the Internet should be open to all on fair terms (no discrimination against—filtering out or blocking—any one or any idea or point of view). The second is that discriminating in any way blocks some customers and thus reduced profits. The incentives for ISPs to provide fair access to all aligned with the public’s expectations of and desires to have fair access.

Ideology enters the discussion when people disagree over the meaning of fairness. Some people think that some classes of users (the poor, IT startups, etc.) should have the cost of their use of the Internet paid by someone else (tax payers, cross subsidies from larger, established users/suppliers, etc.). ISPs, the gateways to the Internet, have no profit incentive to provide such subsidies. Fairness for most economists is when each user pays the marginal cost of their use (plus a small profit margin).

The primary legitimate concern with respect to the net neutrality I want to see is that industry consolidation has reduced the number of ISPs to the point that over half of the country has only one (i.e. no) choice. The only competition in some areas comes from your cell phone plan. Thus there is a legitimate concern with the possibility that an ISP might charge different prices for fundamentally the same service and that those ISPs that are beginning to produce their own content might favor it over competitors’ content with faster lanes or worse.

There were indeed a few problems during the long era of light touch regulation prior to 2015. Verizon’s dispute with Netflix over download speeds and AT&T’s blocking Facetime video but not Skype on iPhones (not even an Internet issue), for example. This occurred before and were resolved before the 2015 FCC regulations on the basis of existing legislation. Excessive concentration and abuses of market power can be and have been dealt with via existing anti trust laws and state and individual civil suits.

The United States has generally allowed markets to develop fairly freely, only applying regulations to deal with real problems when they occur. I represented the IMF as an observer at a G10 Deputies Working Group on E-money meeting at the BIS in Basel Switzerland in December of 1996. The G10 Deputies are the Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors of the ten largest economies in the world. The meeting was chaired by a young Tim Geithner, then the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Monetary and Fiscal Policy in the U.S. Treasury Department. The meeting was to determine the regulatory approach to the prospective emergence of Electronic Money, now referred to as Cyber money. We considered reports on developments to date and took the wise decision to stand back and watch how things developed before formulating regulatory advice.

More recently the Federal Reserve’s Faster Payments Task Force project and the Federal Reserve’s cautious approach to bitcoin and other digital currencies reflects a similar attitude. That attitude, to repeat, is that no one knows for sure the direction that the development of new technologies will take in the search for maximizing their benefits thus profits. Government can at best play a supportive role of providing a flexible legal and regulatory framework within which new products and services can be explored. If problems arise, the government can review with consumers and producers how best to deal with them. The approach to regulating bitcoin and other digital currencies is still evolving.

A counter example to the above enlightened approach is the U.S. approach to Anti Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT), which has imposed enormous regulatory costs on payments of all sorts with no discernable benefits.

Those who believe that private sector behavior and the development and use of technology can be carefully and successfully regulated by government suffer what I have called hubris in other contexts. See, for example: https://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/38/. Nonetheless, in the case of so called net neutrality greater certainty about the legal and regulatory environment in which the Internet must operate would help further its development and evolution, especially if the light touch regulation under which it has developed is restored. Congress should write net neutrality into law.

An excellent discussion of these issues can be heard in this podcast on the Future of Internet regulation with FCC chairman Ajit Pai

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The Individual Health Insurance Mandate

Legislation to replace and/or reform Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—ACA) was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week. Despite President Trump’s premature celebration the process of fashioning a new health care law is just getting underway as the Senate begins the rewriting of the House bill. One of the important issues dividing Democrats from most Republicans, and Republicans from each other, concerns whether everyone should be required to buy health insurance and if so what that insurance must minimally cover. “Health Care Plan B”

The fundamental purpose of insurance is to provide the broadest possible sharing of unpredictable costs. Thus it was not surprising that the Heritage Foundation published a report by Stuart M Butler recommending mandatory health care insurance on October 1, 1989: “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans”. Dr. Butler elaborated his health care insurance mandate in a March 5, 1992 Heritage Foundation report: “Policy Maker’s Guide to the Health Care Crisis”

Robert E. Moffitt elaborated the public policy case for the insurance mandate as follows: “Absent a specific mandate for at least catastrophic health insurance coverage, some persons, even with the availability of tax credits to offset their costs, will deliberately take advantage of their fellow citizens by not protecting themselves or their families, with the full knowledge that if they do incur a catastrophic illness that financially devastates them, we will, after all is said and done, take care of them and pay all of the bills. They will be correct in this assessment…

“An individual mandate for insurance, then, is not simply to assure other people protection from the ravages of a serious illness, however socially desirable that may be; it is also to protect ourselves. Such self protection is justified within the context of individual freedom; the precedent for this view can be traced to none other than John Stuart Mill.” Health Affairs, January 1994.

Two bills offered in the U.S. Senate in 1994, the Consumer Choice Health Security Act sponsored by 25 Republican Senators and the bipartisan Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act sponsored by 19 Republican and 2 Democratic Senators included health insurance mandates.

When Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts signed that state’s “An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care,” adopted in 2006 with broad bipartisan support. It required all Massachusetts residents to buy health insurance. Surprisingly in 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama opposed an individual mandate (but apparently supported the existing employer health insurance mandate for their employees). But only two years later in 2010 then President Obama signed into law the ACA, which included a weak individual insurance mandate.

Conservatives turned against the individual mandate, I assume, because it seemed to exceed the constitutional authority of the federal government under the enumerated powers of the U.S. constitution (remember them). In a very controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the court ruled on June 28, 2012 in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that although the individual mandate was not constitutional under the commerce clause (already stretched beyond recognition), it could be construed as a tax and was therefore valid under the constitutional authority for congress to “lay and collect taxes.” While I favor a health insurance mandate, I also favor preserving the constitutional limitations on the powers of the federal government, which leave the establishment of such mandates to the individual states.

States have generally been more successful at addressing the financing of its citizens’ health care needs. They also have the advantage of learning from each others experiences. Consider the issues of catastrophic health care costs and those of preexisting conditions. Preexisting conditions are not appropriate for insurance coverage (insurance is meant to share the cost of “future and unexpected losses”), but they must, nonetheless, be paid for by someone. In the past, the financing of these known and/or unusually large expenses have been provided through risk pools. “Before Obamacare, 35 states had risk pools – available to people in the individual market who had been turned down for private insurance because of a health condition…. These arrangements were not perfect,” but worked better than the approach taken in Obamacare and should be restored and improved. “High risk pools worked just fine before obamacare”

So where are we? Republicans and Democrats want generally the same outcome–cheaper but better healthcare for all.  Democrats want that administered by the government and Republicans want to rely more on the private sector. I favor the latter.  Hopefully as the Senate writes their own health care reform bill they will provide the federal government’s financial support (tax subsidies) for those unable to afford their medical care costs (whether directly or via insurance) in such a way that states are incentivized to require individual mandates for adequate health insurance and that health care providers are not rewarded for unnecessary procedures. This is one important and complex piece of the overall adjustments needed to lower the cost of providing good care to everyone while allocating its cost fairly (a whole other debate).

 

 

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Buy American, Hire American

President Trump continues to repeat his populist slogan “Buy American, hire American,” reflecting the way he and Steve Bannon appear to understand what is needed to make America Great Again. Thus, with apologies, I endeavor again to explain why this catchphrase is fundamentally wrong and would actually make America weak. “Trade and Globalization” “Save trade”

If buying an American made product or service (100% American, 90%, 51%?) or hiring an American worker is my best option, I would not need to be compelled to do so by the government. If it is not my best option, being compelled to do so forces me to accept an inferior option. It would make me worse off. The Trump family understands this as their hotels import and purchase foreign made products (from China, Philippines and India, to name a few) and Ivanka sells clothing made in China.

It is obvious that being forced to buy and hire American would make many of us worse off (not to mention diminish our freedom of choice), but are there compensating benefits or gains for others in the American economy that would justify making us worse off? “Teeing up Trump tariffs”

Buy American

If I must buy an American made Corvette rather than a German Porsche, does the American economy benefit? To simplify, leave aside the fact that a substantial part of the components making up a Corvette are imported from various countries. The fact that I had to be forced to buy the American car rather than the German one, i.e. that it was an inferior deal, means that the American workers who make it were reallocated from the production of export products at which the United States had a comparative advantage. Trading less as a result of buying American mean allocating American workers to producing things (Corvette) that they are not as productive at making. They would be moved from producing Boeing aircraft to sell to Germany (to pay for our imports of Porsches) to producing Corvettes. So in addition to my being made worse off as a result of having to buy American, the American economy as a whole would be worse off as a result of a less productive work force and thus lower overall income (lower GDP). This is Econ 101.

In addition, as noted by the Financial Times, “Attempts to restrict procurement to domestic companies tend to backfire. They induce retaliation from trading partners, harming US businesses trying to sell abroad. They raise input costs, ensuring less infrastructure is built and fewer construction workers are hired for each dollar of public spending.” “The Pitfalls of having to buy and hire American”

Hire American

The meaning and impact of a requirement to hire Americans is a bit more complex. If the terms to American companies of employing the workers needed, whether they are citizens, permanent residents, or temporary or permanent immigrants from abroad, are not competitive with importing the product or service, American companies will in effect hire foreigners abroad (i.e. they will import the goods and services produced abroad). Thus it is a bit unclear what “hire American” means. “The long, rough ride ahead for ‘Made in America'”

Presumably, “hire American” refers to our immigration policies. Indeed our immigration laws need fixing. This includes providing a solution to the status of the 10 or 11 million people living here illegally, and adjusting immigration quotas to better match the needs of American firms for workers without undercutting the status of existing American workers. “Illegal-aliens”

The decline in American manufacturing jobs is largely the result of automation, not foreign trade. Manufacturing employment has fallen almost everywhere in the world as manufacturing output has increased. Automation enables the work force to produce more and thus enjoy a higher living standard. It need not cause unemployment.

The wonderful film “Hidden Figures” tells the true story of the large number of human “computers” employed by NASA (the National Air and Space Administration) who cranked out the numbers needed to put Americans in space and bring them home again. The stars of the film are three black women whose mathematical skills were indispensible to NASA. At the end of the day and in time for the first American to orbit the earth in 1961, new IBM’s mainframe computers proved essential to crunch the critical data fast enough. Overnight the human computers were no longer needed. But rather than becoming unemployed, most of them retrained to program and run the IBM computers with an unbelievable boost in productivity. While other things also affected NASA’s workload, the employment data are interesting. In 1960 NASA had 13,500 in house employees, which increased to 41,100 by 1965 and gradually drifted down to 18,618 in 2010. The numbers for contract workers on the same dates were 33,200 in 1960, 369,900 in 1965 and zero in 2010.

The President’s appeal to Buy American and Hire American, in addition to restricting our freedom of choice, flies in the face of what made America Great in the first place. As proclaimed by the Financial Times: “The principle should remain to keep the US economy as open as possible to the inflow of good products and good workers from abroad. Slamming down the drawbridge is only likely to impoverish the residents of the citadel.”

 

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