Monthly Archives: October 2009

Michael Cannon at Cato draws my attention to these posts by Donald Marron, a former CBO director, on the confusion surrounding recent estimates of the cost of the health reform bills. (A good place to start in fact is this earlier post by Marron, which sets out the various definitions of “cost”.) The president has promised that reform will not cost more than $1 trillion over ten years. The new House bill, on the definition used up to now, breaches that limit: therefore, its proponents adopted a different definition and at least to begin with almost everybody bought it. See also this piece from the NYT’s health policy blog.

Adair Turner of the UK Financial Services Authority gave a very good speech on the causes and implications of the financial crisis yesterday in Washington. The event was hosted by National Journal and the Economic Club of America. Video here for National Journal subscribers. Transcript here.

The speech drew on a new FSA discussion paper, prepared for a conference in London on Monday: well worth reading. I think I have already recommended this earlier discussion paper, which I still think gives one of the best overviews of the entire shambles.

This morning I took part in an event organized by Georgetown Law and the Aspen Institute: a conversation with Ken Feinberg, special master for executive compensation at firms receiving assistance under the TARP, followed by a panel discussion on some of the issues he raised, featuring Mike Oxley, Chris Brummer, John Olson and Nell Minow. Following last week’s announcements on pay, the session was very well-timed.

Perhaps it is stating the obvious, but Feinberg is an extremely impressive man, with a remarkable appetite for difficult assignments. This may be his hardest job yet. I thought his comments were interesting. If you have a couple of hours to spare, you can watch video of the entire event here.

In a new column for National Journal I ask what needs to happen before this problem is taken seriously.

The public debt stands at nearly $8 trillion and within 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office projections, it will be more than $14 trillion. Getting to that second figure in one piece depends on two things. Some optimistic economic assumptions need to hold, and investors need to be willing to lend the government another $6 trillion. Taking either of these things for granted would be foolish.

Almost everybody in Washington agrees that the fiscal outlook is scary. Almost everybody says that something must be done. But the options for confronting the problem come down to spending cuts or tax increases, and as soon as you mention either, an embarrassed silence descends.

The politicians are not as worried as they say they are. And the same is true of the public. If you believe the polls, voters are more anxious about public borrowing than their politicians are — but not so worried as to welcome a rise in taxes (their own taxes, I mean) or cuts in Social Security or Medicare. They may be nervous about policies that would add to the fiscal problem — hence their hesitation over health care reform — but meaningful subtractions from the problem are a different matter.

Can anything be done? We have been here before. Washington has a time-honored procedure for such cases. Rather than thinking about entitlement reform or tax reform, it thinks about process reform.

And I go on to argue that process reform–despite the risk that it will degenerate into mere displacement activity–is not to be despised. In the past it has been a qualified success. Better that than having to deal with an otherwise unavoidable train wreck. You can read the whole column here.

Bromley illustration

After eight years of government by gut instinct, most Americans welcomed the arrival of a deliberative president. Yes, get the experts in. Reflect, weigh their advice. What a good idea.

And so it is if you are attempting, say, to reform the healthcare system. (A shame it was not tried.) There is even more to be said for taking your time if you are contemplating going to war. But when you are already fighting one, it has drawbacks. The US has been at war in Afghanistan for eight years – and it is losing. On this issue, Barack Obama is giving deliberation a bad name. He needs to make his mind up.

The White House is touchy about this and is deflecting critics by blaming the previous administration. Mr Obama is asking hard questions his predecessor ignored, goes the line. True enough, Mr Obama inherited a wretched situation – but the recent dithering is all his own.

The remainder of this article can be read here. Please post comments below.

The idea of a public option in healthcare reform is not dead yet. A lot of Democrats believe you need it to hold down costs. A lot also see it as a first stride towards Medicare-for-all, which is where they want the system to end up. Obama has signalled he is ready to drop the idea, but has given no strong steer one way or the other. The party, especially in the House, is not willing to give up on it just yet.

One of the things keeping the notion afloat is the belief that voters, too, are pretty keen. I’ve blogged before about this (here and here), noting that the polling results are actually all over the place. The answer depends on the way the question is framed. The variation also suggests confusion–which is warranted, given the complexity of these proposals, with or without the option.

The excellent Jay Cost at Real Clear Politics has taken a much more careful look at the question. Framing is everything, he finds, and questions which draw attention to possible consequences of the option elicit less support.

Cost draws attention to some Rasmussen polling. When asked,

“Would you favor or oppose the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option that people could choose instead of a private health insurance plan?”

the answer is strong approval. Then comes a follow-up question.

“Suppose that the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers. Workers would then be covered by the government option. Would you favor or oppose the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option if it encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers?”

A clear majority is now opposed.

So, does this mean that the public is actually against the public option? I’d say no. Instead, I would suggest that the public lacks sufficient information about that specific item to deliver a firm opinion. Accordingly, its opinion varies depending upon question wording, priming effects, the ebbs and flows of the news cycle, and so on.

Sounds right to me.

Further to the previous post, this column by Ross Douthat is on the same page regarding the financial consequences of health reform. He advocates a more limited form of universal access–to coverage with a very high, income-related deductible, or so-called catastrophic insurance. As he says, this has been proposed by Martin Feldstein and Brad DeLong, conservative and liberal respectively, so the idea has cross-party appeal.

There’s certainly a lot to be said for this approach. Feldstein and DeLong differ in important ways (DeLong wants to shut down private health insurance altogether) but they agree that the taxpayer should pay for healthcare expenses above a high threshold, and that the tax deduction for employer-provided insurance (which costs more than $200 billion a year) should be abolished to pay for it. Either of their plans would strengthen the individual incentives to economise up to the threshold. I only wonder if a deductible as high as they envisage (15% of gross income; DeLong favors an income-tax increase of 5 percentage points on top of that) could be made to stick.

Bromley illustration

Barack Obama called the health bill approved by the Senate finance committee last week a “critical milestone”. So it is. Despite its flaws, many remaining uncertainties, and some difficult consequences should it become law, the bill is a breakthrough.

Nobody actually likes the measure. A muddle of awkward compromises, it has something to offend everyone. The full Senate will modify it, and eventually both houses of Congress must pass the same bill. So the plan will change again, and might collapse altogether. Yet this is the furthest a bill to guarantee access to health insurance in the US has ever come. The committee’s vote shows that this reform is feasible. An entitlement that other rich countries have long taken for granted is finally within reach.

The charge that the president is all talk and no action has lately begun to stick. It will sound hollow if he signs a bill assuring near-universal access to health insurance – an aim that Democrats have pursued fruitlessly for years. If this bill or something like it becomes law, Mr Obama’s prospects will revive, and he will have an indelible achievement to his name.

The remainder of this article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Charles Krauthammer and Bill Schneider offer contrasting takes. Krauthammer as always makes some powerful points. His catalogue of Obama’s failures to date is correct, isn’t it? In particular, Russia’s lack of response to the administration’s multi-track overtures has received too little attention.

And what’s come from Obama’s single most dramatic foreign policy stroke — the sudden abrogation of missile defense arrangements with Poland and the Czech Republic that Russia had virulently opposed? For the East Europeans it was a crushing blow, a gratuitous restoration of Russian influence over a region that thought it had regained independence under American protection.

But maybe not gratuitous. Surely we got something in return for selling out our friends. Some brilliant secret trade-off to get strong Russian support for stopping Iran from going nuclear before it’s too late? Just wait and see, said administration officials, who then gleefully played up an oblique statement by President Dmitry Medvedev a week later as vindication of the missile defense betrayal.

The Russian statement was so equivocal that such a claim seemed a ridiculous stretch at the time. Well, Clinton went to Moscow this week to nail down the deal. What did she get?

“Russia Not Budging On Iran Sanctions: Clinton Unable to Sway Counterpart.” Such was The Washington Post headline’s succinct summary of the debacle.

You can make a better case than Krauthammer allows for changing the missile-shield policy, but the fact that Russia hasn’t budged on Iran is indeed a notable failure.

Krauthammer goes much further, of course, and says that calling Obama’s Nobel merely “premature” is absurd. He thinks we can already write off the administration’s whole approach. There he loses me. Such certainty, less than a year in, seems as daft as saying it’s all going great.

I think this FT leader is very good. First it says that public money underwrites the bonuses banks are getting ready to hand out. That is a familiar point but one that deserves to be emphasised. Then it puts its finger on something mentioned less often. These huge bonus pools are diverting funds that could be used to build capital, which the industry as a whole urgently needs to do.

The problem is not limited to the bonuses on which political debate has unhelpfully focused. It is widely agreed that variable pay must be designed to discourage risks to the economy. But current plans for regulating pay will not limit the total amount bankers extract from profits, which could instead be added to capital.

In principle, other planned regulation – strong insolvency regimes and risk-sensitive capital requirements – can limit banks’ profits from risks underwritten by others. But it will take years before these are credibly enforced.

Yes. At the present rate of progress, in fact, one wonders if they will ever be credibly enforced. In any event, regulation of the overall level of bankers’ pay, not just its design with respect to risk-taking, is evidently going to be needed–something I never expected to say.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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