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A Litmus Test for Government

Matt Taibbi on health-care reform:

It won’t get done, because that’s not the way our government works. Our government doesn’t exist to protect voters from interests, it exists to protect interests from voters. The situation we have here is an angry and desperate population that at long last has voted in a majority that it believes should be able to pass a health care bill. It expects something to be done. The task of the lawmakers on the Hill, at least as they see things, is to create the appearance of having done something. And that’s what they’re doing. Personally, I think they’re doing a lousy job even of that.[...]

This whole business, it was a litmus test for whether or not we even have a functioning government. Here we had a political majority in congress and a popular president armed with oodles of political capital and backed by the overwhelming sentiment of perhaps 150 million Americans, and this government could not bring itself to offend ten thousand insurance men in order to pass a bill that addresses an urgent emergency.

Something might get done. And if that something that gets done extends health-care coverage to 40 million people who don't now have it, that will be a big deal, and a big improvement in the lives of many, many Americans. It's important for people who get good health care and have the luxury of seeing this as an intellectual and political project to keep that in mind.

But whatever gets done will be much too expensive because the political system is very afraid of harming any of the relevant industries. Taibbi is right that this, like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation.

You can argue over why that is. Taibbi implies that Americans stand foursquare behind action on health-care reform, and there's no evidence that that's true for any particular health-care reform you might attempt. But nor is it true that even a relatively united populace -- as we had on the stimulus -- could guarantee a decent outcome. And so the end result remains the same: The country, and the system, will continue to whistle while our wages get eaten up and our government tumbles further into debt and our interest rates rise and other priorities get squeezed out and a serious and painful fiscal reckoning inches ever closer.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 28, 2009; 4:14 PM ET
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Taibbi's right and most sentient beings who have read the ongoing coverage of the health care "reform" effort know he's right. Congress exists to protect the special interests (insurance companies, big pharma) from the voters. Our privately funded political campaigns ensure that.

I'll change my opinion when I see Obama cancel or reduce his vacation and start flying to Blue Dog districts and campaigning hard. Rahm also has to start putting on some serious pressure on the Blue Dogs and Senate "moderates" behinds the scenes. If Rove could do it for Bush's terrible legislation when he was between 40-45% in the polls and win votes with many less Republicans, Obama can do it at 55-60% and solid majorities in both chambers. The fact that Rahm and President are not putting serious pressure on recalcitrant Dems is, as Taibbi says, very telling.

The chances of Obama (or the Congressional Democrats) canceling or reducing their vacations and working for real health care reform are about as likely as me waking up tomorrow morning with a million dollars in the bank. Or taking a vacation this year.

I've been steadily supporting the Dems and health care reform efforts with small contributions, as well as volunteering for Obama in'08. If the President can't bring members of his own party into line for a decent bill which was the top priority of his campaign he's going lose a lot of support from progressives. Not to mention being condemned from now on as a failure by the media.

Hope the President has a nice vacation on Martha's Vineyard with all the other rich people!

Posted by: opal22 | July 28, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

That's just crude populism. Why aren't you afraid of mob rule? Do you think the incoherent, irrational mob is always going to agree with you? Rabble, Rabble, Rabble!!!

Aren't you basically saying "Are political system sucks so lets give it more power and responsibility over our everyday lives."?

Government should be judged by its ability to protect freedom and preserve the rule of law. Not nationalizing things is generally a good way to protect freedom. It generally doesn't do so well at maximizing that whole freedom thing.

I don't think giving the Government a monopoly for helping the poor and elderly obtain healthcare has worked out that well. Maybe there's a better way to help them.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 28, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse


First off, the government does not have a monopoly on helping the poor and elderly. That situation is one where the market has determined that the poor and elderly should not have health care because they cannot afford it, and to prevent these people from dying, they are given subsidized healthcare through Medicare and Medicaid. There's nothing stopping a poor or elderly person from paying for health care out of pocket, or purchasing an insurance policy, they just can't afford it.

Moreover, government shouldn't be judged entirely on its ability to preserve freedom. Governments are ways for society to accomplish things that can't be done (or are extremely unlikely to be done) by individuals, like intervening in World Wars and rescuing earthquake victims. Preventing catastrophic climate change is a moral good and protects the autonomy of future generations who would have to live in a world filled with refugees, heat waves, etc. Ensuring that individuals can afford health care (ie, can live) would have important benefits to protecting individual autonomy. I guess what I'm saying is that I like it when my government does good stuff.

Posted by: etdean1 | July 28, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I would respond but Big Brother has decided to censor my ocmments. I guess I should try to use more personal insults and irrational arguments like Paul Krugman so that I can live up to his high standards.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 28, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

Im sorry but I would be remiss if I did not point out that Ezra has become irritatingly spineless. I used to read your blog daily at Prospect, when it seemed you were at least somewhat willing to act like a journalist. Sure, I always thought you were tepid in your opinions but nonetheless honest. Im not sure what to think anymore - and I guess by the number of posts around here, I am not the only one.

But to the point...Your obsessive need to find polling support and CBO scores to discuss policy is getting in the way of your journalism. Despite your protestations, it is fundamentally true that an overwhelming block of voters reversed the political pendulum the last two cycles. They voted for a number of things from Iraq to healthcare only to see very little, if nothing, transpire. And on the healthcare score, your dream of covering the uninsured is by no means a reality.

It does not take an unnecessary dose of wonkery to see this.

However, your conciliatory attitude defending the anemic nature of our body politic seems to have advanced since you started getting interviews with celebpols like Max Baucus and Kent Conrad.

You see, I too am young and live in DC, and any sentient being that walks around Capitol Hill at night and sees the orgy of fundraisers and opulence would agree with Taibbi.

Posted by: dside | July 28, 2009 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Ezra you too to throw the towel in! I did not expect. I thought you expected a bill to get passed even if late.

First of all I do not see sky is falling just because Obama could not make August dead line. Not every time rushing things result good. (You know the drill, stimulus package etc.)

Second, you are forgetting two fundamental problems Obama seems to have solved - Detroit and saving Banking system and economic collapse. You can very well have your opinions how entrenched those solutions or how good or how legally right those solutions are; but things worked. Simply worked, no ifs and buts.

Third, even Bush got few things right. His Iraq Surge. So even a discredited leader can effect changes when at the helm of Government.

So let us stop crying that our Democracy is useless.

In this case, what about folks who really think that we cannot take one more Trillion Dollar debt in the name of health reform? For them, precisely our system worked - even with majority you can have a minority with a voice to effect some legitimate changes. Remember, not in all cases minority is trumping majority - Sotomyer was cleared today by the committee...

Bottom line - we got to concentrate on specifics and forget about going for overreaching, revolutionary statements. You fix your health care bills if more people are not lining up. If you think Senate does not work, change it. Not that Senate structure has not changed. You find Sen. Snowe too gloating for her role; campaign for Senate change.

Otherwise a black guy would not have been elected President in this country.

We do not read your blogs for your frustrations and your cries.

Posted by: umesh409 | July 28, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

The nonsense here continues to reach new heights Why does health reform cease to be health reform if it doesn't include a government-run health plan?

There are so many other components that can make this effort successful -- an end to pre-existing condition barriers combined with an individual mandate, delivery and payment reform to emphasize outcomes over volume, investments in wellness, liability reform, etc. Congress can pass a strong reform bill without a government plan option.

Those who insist there MUST be a private plan are clearly guided more by their ideology than by a desire for a better health system, and that's why they are destined to lose. (fingers crossed)

Posted by: FreeMas | July 28, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

The reason that the government-run health plan isn't nonsense is that it's the only way we'll move away from for-profit health insurance. Medical costs are rising quickly enough without adding the insurance profit layer. That isn't ideology. It's common sense.

Posted by: lj48 | July 28, 2009 10:04 PM | Report abuse

I am right with the last comment. Please give me a break. How can anybody in their right mind think that health services for profit are ever going to serve anybody's interest? Greedy self-serving insurance execs. Greedy docs. Greedy greedy. The only reason that the public option is off the table is that the SOB's in the insurance industry have spent millions to take it off, so they can continue to skim many more millions off the top of health premiums. Get serious people. There should be actions in the streets until Congress gets the picture: the people in general are far to the left of the media and our so-called representatives, who (with admirable exceptions) represent nothing but the people who bought them their seat at the table.

Posted by: Swerdy | July 29, 2009 2:32 AM | Report abuse

Don't worry; I'm confident that the libs won't give up!

And I'm sure, whatever bill does come of all this, that:

A) it will NOT be a free market approach,
B) it WILL make things worse, and,
C) whatever additional harm it does will be eventually be blamed on "the free market," and NEVER blamed on the Democrat Congress that enacts it.

What a bunch of shills.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 29, 2009 6:51 AM | Report abuse

"How can anybody in their right mind think that health services for profit are ever going to serve anybody's interest?"

Um, because that's how everybody serves everybody's interest.

"Greedy self-serving insurance execs. Greedy docs. Greedy greedy."

Well, fortunately, you're not greedy; only they are. So just part with your unimportant money, and they will only be too happy to serve you. Thank God the greedy are so easy to persuade!

Unless, of course, you're too greedy to pay up...

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 29, 2009 6:58 AM | Report abuse

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