How to not fix America's debt problem
I don't favor privatizing veterans' health care. Neither does prime-time MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, as she spent several minutes of her program Thursday night making clear. So I was hoping Maddow would defend the VA with some reasoned argument -- stressing, maybe, that this government program is actually relatively innovative on care delivery and cost control. Instead she spent a lot of time snarkily suggesting that we ask the beneficiaries of government aid whether they'd like less aid:
No, veterans care is not perfect. But tell this nation's veterans that you want to get rid of VA and see what they tell you....Like Social Security, like Medicare, you want find out whether or not VA care works, go and tell the nation's veterans that you want to take the VA away. Go talk to veterans' organizations. See what they think of privatizing veterans' care and ending the VA.
So one can measure the success of a government program merely by consulting those who benefit from it? Sure, beneficiaries of some government welfare programs might complain about the benefits they get -- but they're not going to say that they want the government to spend less on them, even if it should. And when recipients of government aid like the largess, that might show some very basic competence in distributing benefits, but not much more than the fact that spending money on people often makes them happy. Neither response on its own demonstrates that the program is a good deal for taxpayers.
By Maddow's slippery "logic," countless wasteful government benefits enacted all over the world would be "successful." Including, say, America's bloated and indefensible farm subsidy system, which robs average taxpayers to pay large agribusinesses. That's a great deal -- for the agribusinesses. Maddow also mentioned that independent groups had highly rated the VA's service. But, again, these ratings reflect the quality of the benefits, not the efficiency of the program.
Why does this matter, if I basically agree with Maddow on the policy, anyway? First, because throwaway arguments undermine the cause. But also, and more importantly, because of how dangerous Maddow's logic is when applied elsewhere.
Those who favor a robust social safety net must honestly examine how much federal programs cost, determine where they can be more efficient and make tough choices about what the government can sustain in the long-term. Otherwise we will have to dismantle the safety net when the government can no longer meet its obligations, resulting in more damaging cuts than would have been necessary otherwise. Judging welfare programs merely by the satisfaction of those who have an interest in sustaining them deeply undermines this process.
But Maddow seemed all too happy to use this reasoning to deflect criticism of every large federal entitlement, lumping Social Security and Medicare -- both of which require some reform if America's safety net is to reflect its capacity to pay for it -- in with the VA, all programs, apparently, that can't be touched because beneficiaries like them. "Tell an audience of people who are on Medicare, you would like to take their Medicare away from them. See how they react. See what happens. I highly suggest you bring a riot shield with you." And what if rapidly escalating health expenses eventually require more cost control? Surely Medicare recipients wouldn't like that. So is that out of bounds, too?
Maddow has made a point of avoiding this logic at times in the past. I wish she had been more careful Thursday night.
| September 24, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Stromberg | Tags: Stephen Stromberg
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