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Answering the President on Public vs. Private Healthcare

June 23, 2009

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman just posted this:

The president is making sense
Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias both catch President Obama making sense on the public option:

QUESTION: Wouldn’t that drive private insurance out of business?

OBAMA: Why would it drive private insurance out of business? If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care; if they tell us that they’re offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can’t run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That’s not logical.

Making Sense? I respectfully disagree. Obama’s answer conveniently leaves out some important economic factors.

President Obama asks, “Why would it drive private insurance out of business?”

The answer is simple:

  1. Because the government operates outside the market and price system and therefore has the unique ability to artificially set their price below the competitive market (something private insurers do not have the power to do, because their price is determined by supply and demand). Contrary to popular belief, Prices in the free market are not set arbitrarily. This is easily demonstrated by Craigslist. I recently tried to sell a rather ugly southwestern style kitchen table for $200. I actually figured that it probably wasn’t worth that, but I thought I would try it and see if I got any bites. No Response.
    Soon – I lowered the price to $150. Nothing.
    Finally, I lowered it to $100 and I sold it fairly quickly. You can see that I could not sell the table for more than it’s actual real-world perceived value. I didn’t really set the price at $100, rather, low demand for the ugly table did.
  2. Also – the government is funded through non-voluntary trading – by taxation, thus has no competition, no bottom line, no incentive, nor any reason whatsoever to function efficiently. Nor do they have any real incentive to provide ‘better health care’ (In a public system – someone in an office, who knows nothing about you, will determine the policy of what is considered ‘adequate’ healthcare based on what – Statistical data?) since you don’t get to choose to pay (essentially, vote with your dollars) for their service. Only the government has the power to force you to pay for their service, whether you want it or not. Private industry has to offer you something you value more than your own money, to earn your business.
  3. Finally, the fact that most people falsely perceive government options as “free,” basically guarantees overwhelming popular and political capital for an idea that you cannot choose not to pay for. Even if the actual outcome of such a program is poor, the majority of voters will subscribe to the nice sounding idea that everyone should receive health care. It is, after all, a noble sounding ideal – but unfortunately, when measured against history, or any kind of actual economic cost/benefit results – it fails.

I would expect Paul Krugman, Ezra Klien, Matthew Yglesis, and President Obama to know better, but political capital is so much easier to get excited about, than the, rather, wet blanket that is economic reality. It’s time (yet again) for one of my favorite quotes:

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”
-Thomas Sowell

You cannot buck economic forces. In my view – they are as consistent and absolute as the laws of Mathematics. Yet they seem to be the first to be disregarded in the face of an idea that sounds really satisfying.

I have written much more extensively on this here: Healthcare: Economic Reality vs. Political Capital

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