The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Will the Real Death Panel Please Stand Up

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In the metaphorical war over the federal budget, both sides are claiming the right to use the death panel sound bite.

The phrase surfaced in the early debate over the health insurance bill two years ago when a number of prominent Republicans began distorting a simple provision in the bill to allow Medicare to pay for doctor-patient consultations about coping with terminal illness. The notion caught fire when Sarah Palin coined the phrase, and it never seemed to matter how often reasonable people unmasked the falsehood.

Now it seems that Democrats are struggling to find some solid ground on which to fight the tide of Republican misrepresentations. They’re not having much luck. President Obama is conciliatory to the dismay of committed liberals, and, I’m afraid, wishy-washy to the great silent majority. To an occasional consumer of news, the whole political debate looks like a ridiculous partisan game.

When Paul Ryan, a career politician and dogmatic conservative who’s secure in his Wisconsin Congressional district, outlined a budget plan for next year, he created a minor sensation. The media lionized him, calling him brave, courageous and true. His self-described bold plan leaned heavily on gutting Medicare, the enormously popular government-run health insurance program for people over 65.

Some Democrats jumped on the death panel metaphor, trying to convey the suffering that might occur if Medicare is gouged too much. But to no avail. They’re correct in worrying about people’s suffering. But they miss the point: Ryan’s plan won’t work. It’s not new; it’s not bold; in fact, the government has been trying to make it work for about seven years.

In 2003, George Bush 2 pushed through a scaled down version of Ryan’s privatization of Medicare. It’s called Medicare Advantage, through which people could obtain more coverage while the government could save money. But it costs more money — over 12 percent more than the government-run plan. But the costs are hidden from the people — paid under the table (from the consumers’ point of view) by the government to insurers. It is a voucher system, only the vouchers go directly from the government to the insurance companies. It is optional, but Ryan would make it mandatory, since there would be no alternative.

It was supposed to be efficient and save the government, and thus the taxpayer, money by improving care and reducing costs. But it doesn’t do those things. By all indications, most of the extra money that goes into Medicare Advantage pays for the insurance companies administration and for their profits.

There is a little cash left over for the consumer, and savvy 65-year-olds should be signing up for it in droves. But they’re not nearly as enthusiastic as the insurance companies who bombard people turning 65 with ads in the mail and on the phone to sign up. These profit-making corporations know a good thing when they see it.

The problem with Medicare is not which sluggish bureaucracy administers — the government’s or businesses’ — but in the rising cost of health care. In 20 years, the insurance companies have completely failed to bring these costs under control. Giving them more power is ludicrous.

Beyond Medicare, Ryan’s budget is a simple list of departmental spending cuts that would instruct most federal agencies to cut spending. So no voters have a clue about what has to go and what it means to them. You can shout about government waste but there’s no bravery until you show us what exactly is being wasted and what you’re going to do about it.

At the same time, he proposes even more tax cuts. In short, this adds up to an old story. We saw it in the 80s when Ronald Reagan and George Bush 1 also talked about the federal debt and cut taxes. We saw it again after the turn of the century when Bush 2 talked about the federal debt and cut taxes. During both periods, federal spending ballooned, federal taxes went down and the federal debt rose to the highest levels since World War II.

Those fiscally irresponsible programs and this new one are wrapped in slightly different rhetoric, but they are all based on the same ideas: That business is more efficient than government; that deregulation encourages economic growth; that low taxes for business and rich people trickles down to everyone.

You can dismiss the first two arguments in a few words: the banking crisis of the late 80s, the banking crisis of 2007 and 2008 and a few outstanding examples of corporate foresight and responsibility, like British Petroleum’s off-shore drilling and the Japanese electric companies’ nuclear power plants. As far as trickle-down goes, whatever benefits there are disappear in the swamps of deregulation and war.

Superficially, Ryan looks good, clutching his sheath of papers containing his plan. He is handsome in a square-jawed, middle-American way. He’s definitely not urban. He has a distinctive way of speaking. He talks over people if they raise questions, and he has a gift for pronouncing trillion-scale numbers without pauses. I suppose his manner looks smart to the ordinarily arithmetically challenged tax payers.

I have no question that he’s selling something, but I don’t know what. He’s got a safe seat, as do most incumbents in Congress after a term or two. Elections are so easy now, that his campaign unit has $3 million in the bank for next time. Yet, he likes to say he’s from a swing district and that he bucks the tide of the electorate.

He comes from a well-to-do family that owns a construction business. After he graduated from Miami University in Ohio in 1992 he went to work for a few conservative politicians, like Bob Kasten, Jack Kemp and William Bennett, before winning his first term in Congress in 1998. He occasionally calls himself a marketing consultant but his only experience in business was at some stray time in the 90s when he did something for the family business. He’s mentioned by the Republican right as an attractive presidential candidate in 2012, but he denies all interest.

His plan is nothing more than a buy-now, pay-later scheme. The only part he’s actually detailed is Medicare, and even that won’t affect anyone until 2022 or later. They’re focused on the here and now, and for Ryan, and the Republicans, and their big business angels that means tax cuts.

I think he’s relying on the refusal of most people to think ahead. Wall Street laughs at us because we can’t balance our checkbooks. We gulp when we see the ever-increasing digits on the old “national debt clock” — which is showing each tax payers share at $128,000 now. Ryan is trying to scare you into exclaiming that you can’t afford to pay it.

By some magic, Ryan and other Republicans want you to believe you don’t have think about this terrible national debt if you only relieve corporations and rich people of taxes and regulations. All you have to do is vote for him and stop these awful politicians from doing any more damage.

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Written by theunbiasedeye

April 12, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Politics

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