The budget problems are all healthcare related

Fix ItHealthcare spending in the U.S. accounts for 17.6% of the economy, and is projected to be 20% by the end of this decade.  These are not federal budget numbers, this is the whole economy.  $1 out of every $6 that’s spent in this country is spent on healthcare.

For context, that’s double the percentage spent in the average OCED country.  In absolute dollars, we spend 2.5 times more per capita than average, at $8,650/person.  And for all that money, we rank just under the average for life expectancy and infant mortality.

This is a pointless drag on the entire economy.  Not only for the government and private employers, but for workers as well.  One of the reasons wages have been so flat for the last decade is that money available for employee raises has gone into preserving medical coverage rather than increasing take home pay.

Yet this is also a big issue, perhaps the only issue, for the current budget problems faced by the federal government.  Government spending on healthcare (including employee plans, veterans benefits, as well as Medicare and Medicaid) is $1.17 trillion each year.  And this is projected to double over the decade.  Granted, these numbers are inclusive of state and local government spending as well, but this is still paid for with our tax dollars.

In other words, considering our 2.5x cost premium, there’s $700 billion/year sitting on the table if we manage to get our healthcare costs in line with our global peers.  Even assuming the federal portion is only half of that, the numbers dwarf any of the cost savings currently proposed by either party’s budget plans.  Couple this with the already planned savings for drawing down the wars, and our deficit goes away by 2020.

This is the only budget problem we need to be addressing.  It saves Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, NASA, Pell Grants, and everyone else currently on the chopping block.  Do the math.

So why aren’t we focused on fixing this?  Primarily because the proven method of achieving the healthcare cost goals, the one used by pretty much every other OCED country we are benchmarking against, is some form of single-payer model.  And for reasons known mostly to powerful corporate lobbies for insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical device  companies, single-payer health plans are socialist Nazi plots to kill Grandma. Instead, we are committed to responsible prudent austerity founded on shared sacrifice… because Grandma prefers be bankrupt such that she is forced to choose between food and medicine.  After all, it is about having a choice.

The country is not broke, but it is broken

Broken ChainPopular wisdom has it that the US is largely now “owned” by China or other foreigners.  That we are basically borrowing from the world to stay afloat.  Thus, ushering in the specter of these lenders calling our loans due and breaking us.

It turns out that’s not quite true.  In fact, it’s not even a little true.  Business Insider actually looked at the data, and the perhaps surprising result is that two-thirds of the $14.3 trillion debt is held right here in the US.

Think of that a little differently.  $9.8 trillion of American government debt is held by US taxpayers.  The same people (well, some of the same people) ultimately responsible for paying off that debt.  The same people who would pay should the government opt to raise more revenue through taxes.

The government is the people in this country.  We hear all the time how the US debt is a legacy of burden on our grandchildren.  Yet, at least collectively, those same grandchildren are sitting on a massive asset which is the notes on that very same debt.  It would be as if you had $70,000 worth of gold buried in your backyard, a $100,000 mortgage you couldn’t make the payments on, and spent all your time whining about how you were broke.

Make no mistake, the current debt crisis is one of choice on many levels.  The government may well be broke, but the country is not.  And the government is broke only because it (or we) have chosen make it run that way.  This leaves us no license to bitch about it.

Be careful what you wish for – Congressional Edition

Capitol DomeA new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that nearly two-thirds of registered voters say they plan to “look around” to vote for someone other than their current member of Congress in 2012.

This is pretty understandable given the utter dysfunction of the 112th Congress and the debt ceiling gauntlet they have chosen to run us through.  However, it’s worth noting that this sort incumbent dissatisfaction is what got us here in the 2010 election cycle.

The 2010 elections were all about throwing out the incumbents and sending Washington a message that the voters were mad as hell and wanted things to be different.  The result being an extremely large crowd of 93 Freshman Representatives in the House and 13 fresh-faced Senators.  And well… it’s different in Washington, but is it what we wanted?

The mad as hell, ideologically driven, take no prisoners and accept no compromise spirit of the voters is arguably embodied in the newly elected legislators.  But the result has been virtual political paralysis.  The people sent to “shake things up” have failed to realize that beyond being a message incarnate, they are actually supposed to run a government and act in the best interest of the people.  And the very nature of that in any democracy is about compromise and negotiation, a subtle point of complexity apparently lost on the Freshman class.

The lesson here for us voters should be that while there’s lots of good reasons to revile the incumbents, it’s vitally important to replace them with someone competent and capable, not merely someone loud and angry.

If the economy tanks, will Conservatives repent?

Debt Ceiling Implications Poll
The scariest debt-ceiling poll results, ever

The debt ceiling talks appear to have stalled and the August 2nd date of economic doom draws neigh.  Wall Street bankers, The Fed, the Treasury Department, and most every economist on the planet believe that hitting the debt ceiling will have dire consequences, and that actually defaulting on the debt would be even worse.  Estimates vary in terms of the degree of catastrophe, but virtually no one in a position to be considered an expert on macroeconomics thinks that hitting the ceiling will be no big deal.

In that light, the poll results depicted here are truly frightening.  53% of Republicans, 43% of Independents, and even over a quarter of Democrats believe hitting the ceiling won’t cause a crisis.  Further, somewhere around 60 Congressmen have vowed to vote against any debt ceiling increase, no matter the deal.  Clearly they aren’t worried either.

Chauncey DeVega, over at AlterNet, thinks the reason is that evangelicals have a strong hold on the GOP, and that the fervently faithful have a mindset that ignores numbers that don’t agree with their ideology.  He posits that the Tea Party and other far right conservative groups are running on faith rather than fact.  While there may be some truth to that, it doesn’t explain the plurality of Independents or the chunk of Democrats beholden to the notion that banging into the debt ceiling is a non-event.

I personally think there’s also an element here of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.  Political issues have become so hyperbolic in the media that virtually every issue is positioned as a looming Armageddon of one sort or another.  Unless you’re following the minutiae of the debates, you’re bound to get pretty numb to all the doomsaying.

However, presumably our elected officials are above simply blowing in the media wind.  They have access to data and discussions those of us in the cheap seats do not.   They are in the position to be able to discern hyperbole from actual danger.  Yet this would not prevent them from being blinded to facts by faith.

GOP legislators faith-blindness goes beyond the debt ceiling.  Similar faith-trumps-data rationale fuels denial of global warming, belief that tax cuts don’t have to be paid for, belief that progressive tax codes constitute class warfare and destroy jobs, belief that trickle down economics is always the answer, and government regulation is always evil.

The problem is that proving that tax cuts actually lower revenue, or that CO2 contributes to global warming, requires many years of data.  And even then,the results are subject to interpretation and are not readily understandable by the average Joe.

Should we hit it, the debt ceiling presents an interesting test case.  If the experts are right, the impact will be felt in the very short term.  It will be widespread, affecting almost everyone, everywhere.  And the impact will be felt for awhile.  It will be virtually impossible to deny that such an impact was directly attributable to ignoring the debt ceiling.  The Conservatives who claimed it would be no big deal will be demonstrably and painfully proved wrong beyond any reasonable doubt.

Should that come to pass, the question is, will that shake the faith of Conservative politicians and supporters in their other sacred tenets?  Might they be willing to entertain the reality of global warming given the catastrophic impact of their blind faith in the debt ceiling non-crisis?  Or will this be swept under the rug much like the predicted May 21st end of the world predictions.  That was also proved wrong, but the faithful seem to somehow have accepted that failure with no apparent impact on their other beliefs.  Maybe a sufficiently strong faith is even able to overcome incontrovertible reality.

Either way, if the economy tanks, it should certainly cause the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” crowd to pay attention.  Maybe that bodes well for our collective political future if we can at least get the majority of the voters to begin operating from data-based rather than faith-based policies.  Although, it would be a hellish way to learn a lesson.


The Anthony Verdict in Perspective

Anthony VerdictCasey Anthony was acquitted today of both murder and manslaughter charges, thus concluding the highly publicized and emotionally charged trial concerning the death of her 2-year old daughter. This outcome is both outrageous and satisfying.

The outrage is pretty easy to understand judging by most any social media feed.  People all over Facebook and Twitter feel young Caylee Marie Anthony was not properly avenged because now no one will be held accountable for the atrocities she endured.  Further, the popular perception was that the conviction of Caylee’s mom was a slam dunk.  That’s certainly how the media portrayed it. And it was certainly my personal expectation as well.  From the news reports and analysis I wasn’t certain they’d get a Murder 1 conviction, but manslaughter seemed a sure thing.  In this respect, there’s a feeling that a guilty person is walking away.

But maybe in its own curious way, this can be viewed as a satisfying outcome.  By all accounts, it seems the justice system worked the way it should.  The difficult thing to keep in mind is that “the way it should” isn’t the same thing as “the way I wanted”.

Anthony was convicted in the court of public opinion long before the trial started.  Despite this, and all the TV cameras rolling in the courtroom, a jury of her peers deliberated the evidence presented and unanimously decided there was reasonable doubt.  That was not the easy decision.  It certainly wasn’t the popular or expected decision.  However, our judicial system is founded on the idea that 1000 guilty people should go free rather than a single innocent person be convicted.  Doubt, any doubt, about the certainty of guilt, is supposed to be a reason for acquittal.

Keep in mind, this was not a celebrity trial.  Anthony didn’t buy a dream team of lawyers, and she didn’t get off on any legal technicality.  She didn’t prey on the emotions of the jury because of her stardom; she had none. Instead, she came off cold, aloof, and decidedly unsympathetic.

Still, with all that against her, 12 people unanimously decided there was reasonable doubt.  Please pause and give that word its due weight.  Unanimously.  This was not a case where one or two bleeding hearts couldn’t be persuaded.  They all agreed.  Furthermore, they agreed to bear the probable scorn of those who had convicted her from their living rooms.  They agreed to go home and face their family and friends, and explain ad nauseum, why they did what they did.  They agreed to not take the easy way out.

And this, whether you like the outcome or not, is how our system is supposed to work. It’s not about vengeance or spleen venting.  It’s not about emotion or empathy.  It’s not about popular opinion.  It’s about truth and justice… the American way.