The Federal Government’s Stock in Trade: Is it More than Grasping at Straws?

LFU_OverTop_BrokenBody_vFA standard defense of Mr. Obama’s signature legislation is that something is better than nothing. Trying is better than not trying. Giving it the old college try beats sitting on the sidelines. These are banal bromides, of course, but does their theme nevertheless apply to Obamacare?

Like many old sayings, this one has a surface appeal but its true wisdom, if any, is strictly context dependent. After all, most platitudes have equally convincing flipsides. For something-better-than-nothing there’s the cure is worse than the disease. Or fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Or grasping at straws.

The last cliché is often applied to federal government programs in general. Seemingly, the government never tires of failing anew where it has persistently failed in the past. Futility has become the government’s stock in trade; its favorite commodity. 

Like any unqualified assertion, that one is wrong, too. But, what is the federal government good at doing and is Obamacare on that list? It’s good at doing what states aren’t. Things like national defense, national transportation infrastructure and extending federal constitutional protections where suitable state laws, or their enforcement, are lacking. Whether public safety and environmental protections are a plus with the feds in charge is up for serious debate.

But, what is undebatable is the fact that the federal government is not good at providing financial safety nets except within narrowly defined limits. Actually, no examples of the latter come to mind but there may be some among the more than two thousand federal assistance programs.

Contrarians cite Social Security and Medicare as examples of successful large-scale assistance programs. They’re just kidding, of course. Medicare Part A has been dogged by insolvency projections from its earliest days. The only change in the projections is when nor whether. The latest prediction is 2026. Social Security is on track for insolvency a scant seven years later.

The reason is the lack of even government control over factors that determine the success of the self-funding programs. Of course, contributions into the funds must match or exceed expenditures from the funds. But, absent government tinkering, this depends on the persistent and serendipitous convergence of:

– A growing workforce with wage increases (i.e., a strong economy and an increasing birth rate),

– An optimum number of enrollees and life expectancies that do not tip the solvency scale to insolvency and

– For Medicare, controlling the costs of providing healthcare including inflation.

Predictably, reality has struck a blow on all three counts. Self-funding programs with built-in insolvency guidance systems can hardly be called successful. The current Congress has yet to apply the usual band-aids of increasing individual contributions or decreasing or delaying benefits. Raiding the general tax fund is not on the table, either.

Obamacare is on this too-big-to-succeed list. Why is Obamacare less than nothing? Because it makes healthcare availability and cost much worse, not better, than they were. Because it creates an endless labyrinth of confusion and dead ends. Because it turns a system that worked for more than 250 million Americans into a watershed of chaos. Because it was a sham sold on distortions and outright fabrications except one. It now controls one-sixth of the economy.

Would Clintoncare have been any different? Not in the end, but Hillary may not have tripped so badly along the way. That the President did not have a single private meeting with Sebelius in the three years between Obamacare passage and launch is stupefying. That the website rollout disaster was the product of amateurish ineptitude bred from political fear and insular thinking is worse.

A hopelessly complex law that took control of one-sixth of the economy, a disinterested President and incompetence are not just ingredients for failure. They are ironclad guarantees. Topped off by Obama’s late-in-the-day rule changes and confusing pronouncements, his signature legislation could only be a slo-mo disaster. 

But, even for a federal government fiasco, there are many puzzling aspects of this sorry episode not the least of which is: what was Obama thinking? It makes one wonder if he really is a windup toy kept in a cellophane box somewhere in the White House and brought out for PR appearances.

Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s long-time advisor, has a different explanation. She claims that the President is such a brainiac that he disdains mundane matters leaving them, instead, to ordinary minds. Obama himself says simply, “[T]here’s a laziness in me.”

Whatever it may be, given the wretched mess that the federal government makes of large-scale assistance programs, one wonders whether the President’s thoughts matter.