A video with a side of politics

While we continue our travels across the US (currently in New Hampshire), we try to keep up with news from back home in Mexico. Judy found this embedded video on FaceBook. It is from some media source called CGTN America, of which I have never heard, but it captures some of the different aspects of life around Lake Chapala. It is 16 minutes long, but worth the watch.

What I think is unfair in the video are the several mentions of Americans arriving in Mexico because they disagree with the state of politics in the States. I don’t doubt some expats move abroad for such reasons, but if you are running from something rather than toward something, your expat experience is far likelier to fail.

The bottom line is there are, according to the US government, 10,000 baby-boomers retiring every day for the next 20 years! Most real estate markets in the States have recovered from the real estate bubble many years back, so retirees who need to sell their homes to pay for a retirement place can now do so. Mexico remains close at hand, inexpensive, and fairly welcoming. Thus we’ll see a continuing stream of newbies trying out the expat lifestyle.

Some Thoughts on Health Care

Everyone had a good laugh when President Trump suddenly announced that “no one knew how difficult health care was going to be” but it may be (unintentionally) the most truthful thing he ever said. Obamacare was a partial solution that reduced the rolls of the uninsured by raising the numbers in Medicaid, creating state exchanges for some, and requiring health insurance for young, healthy individuals who did not want it (or “taxing” them, per the Supreme Court). The Republican’s AHCA is so full of holes in barely merits consideration.

The problems of Obamacare are obvious.  Greatly increasing the number of people on Medicaid without increasing the number of doctors accepting Medicaid reimbursement meant theoretical health care, if at all, for many of the poor and sick. State exchanges turned out to be successful as long as federal reinsurance for providers and federal subsidies for consumers were guaranteed to continue to increase indefinitely. And counting young, healthy people as “insured” with a product they never wanted is a unique approach to accounting. So if all this was pretty predictable, why did the Obama administration try it? Why didn’t they go for a single payer option? Federalize healthcare? And why are the Republicans so unprepared to replace Obamacare, if they knew it wouldn’t work and had seven years to prepare to replace it?

“Facts are stubborn things,” as John Adams once said, and here are several facts about health care in America that must be faced directly if we are ever to make any real progress.

  1. Insurance is not health care. Offering insurance where no health care providers participate is a sick joke. This is the challenge of enlarging Medicaid any further. It was also the challenge undermining the state exchanges, where health care providers are leaving because they can’t make enough profit to justify being in the market. Unless you are willing to “draft” our existing health infrastructure into federal service, you have to address the profit motive, and health care supply and demand. Doctors and hospitals (even non-profits) are a limited resource. Those who still desire to federalize health care need look no further than the VA for a probable outcome, and the TSA for a worst case scenario.
  2. More Americans get their health care through their work…still. Many policy types hate this fact, and it does cause the complication that those who lose their jobs also lose their health care. But it is a stubborn fact that can not be ignored, and should not be changed just because it is inconvenient to the good ideas of policy makers. Health care has been, and remains, one of the various benefits employers use to attract employees.
  3. Appeals for empathy are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Attempts to portray any new idea or policy as “killing grandma” simply ensure nothing will change. Hard cases like the “Jimmy Kimmel” challenge are a case in point. To remind, Kimmel’s newborn son had a congenital heart condition who required emergency surgery to survive. He cited this case as an example of the horror awaiting the poor who don’t have their children born at expensive, private hospitals. Perhaps he is unaware of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTLA) of 1986, which requires public hospitals to provide life-saving emergency medical care without payment/insurance. So his hard case is already covered in law. Such appeals only provide more smoke and heat, but rarely shed any light.
  4. Americans are unwilling to adopt healthy lifestyles, and unwilling to accept anything that smacks of health care rationing. This is my most debatable “fact,” but one I think most would admit. Too many American’s approach to health seems to be “leave me alone to eat and drink as I like and do no exercise, but be there with a wonder drug when something goes wrong. If things get worse, continue trying to make me better or just keep me alive no matter what.” In some respects, this is like the economic concept of inelastic demand, in that the health consumer wants the best regardless of cost. Unfortunately, this results in poor health outcomes, elevated costs, and a miracle pill mentality.
  5. Insurance is a tool that covers catastrophe, period. The concept is you get insurance to cover unforeseen costs which would otherwise be unpayable. If you try to use insurance for more than that, you are misusing the tool, which will backfire. Car insurance covers your catastrophic loss, or repairs if your car is damaged and unusable. It does not cover fuel, or oil changes, or new tires. These are all good things to have for your car, but not for insurance to cover. Why should health insurance cover routine or non-emergency health care issues?

Here is where those facts lead, pointing to the beginning of a solution:

  1. Accept that many Americans will work, and most will get their health care through their jobs. Do not fight this legacy: treat it as a feature, not a bug. Plug the gap that exists when people leave a job by allowing them to continue their previous insurance at a greatly reduced rate for a period of one year (maximum, not extendable), with the government picking up most of the insurance tab, like a low-cost version of COBRA. This would also facilitate workers changing jobs and careers, which would enhance mobility. The federal government should also establish certain minimum standards for work-provided health insurance, so it does not turn into a bare bones offering which ends up sending workers to emergency rooms for treatment.
  2. Promote policies which increase access to health care. Remove limitations on health care provided across state lines. Enhance tuition assistance for medical professionals, including reimbursing student debt for those who agree to work in high-need areas or accept Medicaid reimbursement. Provide tax breaks to groups sponsoring wellness and walk-in clinics addressing preventive medicine and routine care. None of these is a panacea, but they are a start at getting more points-of-service for more people.
  3. Establish a national, catastrophic health insurance program. Everyone is automatically enrolled, but this is the ultimate safety net for those who are one day healthy and the next day near death, as well as those with lingering, debilitating conditions. If you have private insurance or can afford to cover your own costs, you are welcome to do so. Run it as an offshoot of Medicaid, with strict rules on what is covered and how service is rationed.  Yes, I said it, rationed. Even those who laud health care in Canada or the UK must admit they ration care.
  4. Attack health care cost inflation. Limit the opportunity to sue for medical malpractice and the potential damages, perhaps by direct legislation or placing a significant tax on law firms which profit from the same. Slap a windfall tax on excessive profits for health care providers, medical professionals, or pharmaceutical companies; they can avoid this tax by providing low- or no-cost goods/services to poor Americans. Incentivize average Americans to make full use of preventive care by offering a generous tax credit to those who complete a set of routine tests/services (blood test, flu shots/immunizations, blood pressure, physical, etc.,) annually. Consider additional incentives in the form of government payments into health savings accounts for those who address significant health issues (lose 40 lbs, get $ in your HSA). Empower hospital emergency room physicians to reject non-emergency cases; penalize Americans who use emergency rooms for such care by withdrawing their HSA incentives. The emphasis here is to get Americans to try to stay healthy, mitigating future costs for treatment/prescriptions.
  5. Incentivize states to be the laboratories for new health care policies.  Given all the preceding recommendations, there are still gaps for people out of work with health care issues that are neither life-threatening or debilitating. Different states may want to address that gap in different ways. Provide states with block grants that reward programs which identifiable health outcomes (not outputs). Encourage other states to copy successful programs, and defund programs which do not produce such outcomes. If California wants to provide single-payer for its residents, good for them; maybe we can all learn something from that.
  6. Bury, once and for all, the notion of a US-wide single payer system. Countries which have such systems are struggling to pay for them, they ration care, and they have poor deployment of innovative medicine.  While the existing US system is sometimes described as heartless and Darwinian, it still produces the greatest array of medical and pharmaceutical innovation in the world. The trick is to retain the benefit of such innovation, while finding a way to reduce the uneven access to good health care at a reasonable cost. Single payer is not the way there.

I have not submitted these concepts to the CBO for a cost estimate, but there is much here to chew on, and I believe it could be tweaked to come in at a reasonable cost. The status quo pre-Obamacare was morally unacceptable; the status quo today with Obamacare is financially unacceptable.  The Republicans attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare is DOA mostly because they tried to do it through an obscure Congressional process known as “reconciliation” which limits what could be in the legislation. You can not fix a comprehensive issue with a limited tool kit. The Republicans need to leave Obamacare alone, fully funded as-is for the next two years, and start over with a complete re-work. During those two years, the successes and problems of Obamacare will be evident to even the most ardent partisan, and can inform the development of a bipartisan way forward.

All in all, you’re just another brick in the Wall

Pink Floyd’s The Wall album and movie are about as surreal and over-the-top as one can get, so this is probably the right intro to my first political post. About that Wall.

Let me begin with an admission: I am a conservative and a Catholic. So I hew to many straight line conservative positions (pro defense, pro law-n-order, pro free enterprise) but I have several significant deviations (anti death penalty, pro social services). I am pro legal immigration, and I strongly hold that the first obligation of any state, if it wishes to be recognized as a state, is to control its territory and the flow of goods and people across its borders.

All that said, I am against the Wall.  Here’s why:

First off, it addresses an imaginary problem.  I hate policies (left or right) that make you feel good but have no other useful effect: they are the auto-erotica of politics. The flow of illegal immigrants across the US border with Mexico is at a four decade low (check the CBP data here).  All those jobs NAFTA created in Mexico means more and more Mexicans are staying at home, which believe it or not, they prefer to do. Since 2009, more Mexicans left the US then entered.  The illegal immigrants still coming across the border are from Central America.  They are fleeing violence and poor economic conditions in the region, transiting Mexico, and then entering the United States. If we want to stop them, we need the Mexican government’s help.  When the Obama administration faced an earlier flood of such refugees, it arranged with the Mexican leadership to staunch the flow, which worked for a time.

Second, any military officer will tell you that a wall is just an obstacle, and unless it is manned and covered by fire (weapons) it is ineffective.  The only walls I have seen which were effective were the Berlin Wall and the Israeli West Bank barrier.  In the first case (Berlin and the old Inner German Border), the Soviets stationed armed guards every 100 meters or so with shoot-to-kill orders…and still hundreds got through.  The Israeli barrier is mostly fence, with the high wall only for those populated areas where they want to ensure no one can shoot through it. It is effective because it is closely monitored with an immediate military response. No one is emigrating or doing much trade across that barrier. That is, they just don’t care about trade with the Palestinians. Are we willing to station border personnel with free-fire authorizations from Texas to California? No. Are we willing to endure the complete cessation of goods and trade between Mexico and the US? No.

Third, some folks think the Wall will assist in preventing the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico to the United States.  Let’s put this line of reasoning to rest forever: as long as there is an insatiable demand for illegal narcotics in the States, drug cartels in Mexico will find a way to supply it.  You can’t escape the economics. Here are examples: Build a high wall, and it still pays for the cartels to dig an even more expensive tunnel under it. Build a deep and high wall, and the cartels will build slingshots to throw drugs over it, or use drones to fly over it.  Build an airborne barrier, and they will build submersibles and submarines to go around it.  Yes, they make so much money off illegal narcotics they can afford to build disposable submarines…if only one gets through, it pays for twenty more. So please, leave drugs out of the Wall discussion.

Fourth, its expensive.  Current estimates for construction alone are running over $21 billion dollars. And that does NOT inlcude all those armed guards on 24 hour watch, along with dogs, SUVs, blimps, ground penetrating radar, and surveillance drones. Some of those guard towers will be in US cities and in (what was formerly) American citizens’ backyards. And even if it works, just how efficient can it ever be? A one way airfare from Mexico City to Toronto is under $350 dollars.  While that may be beyond the reach of the poorest immigrants, many could afford it…so our vaunted Wall is also dependent upon the goodwill of both our neighbors. Or are we going to build two walls?

Fifth, and this is strictly an emotional point, the Wall is pathetic policy. Building such a wall makes the US that crappy neighbor on your block who has overly high fences and signs that say “trespassers will be shot on sight.” Big Walls are what history’s losers have built: See China, The Great Wall, France’s Maginot Line, or the aforementioned Iron Curtain.  The jury is still out on Israel. Building such a wall is the foreign policy equivalent of a teenager stomping off to a bedroom and slamming the door. We get it, people are angry, but what did that *BANG* accomplish?

There are many legitimate grievances which lead average Americans to conclude we need a Wall.  We need to spend the money we would waste on building the Wall to address those grievances.  We need a guest worker program so industries which rely on cheaper immigrant labor don’t collapse. We need job re-training and vocational education for those Americans most at risk from competition from immigrants.  We do need to develop the legal ways-and-means to deport illegal immigrants convicted of a felony. And we have to conclude some final legal status for the millions of illegal immigrants already here, probably in exchange for better cooperation from Mexico and other concerned governments.

This problem did not happen overnight. It goes all the way back to the World War II Bracero program, where we invited Mexicans to come to the States and work. For my liberal friends who think the current President is an outlier on this issue, I invite you to look at the policies of Jack Kennedy, who encouraged efforts to kill the Bracero program and FDR, who tacitly condoned the repatriation of more than a million Mexican-American citizens during the Great Depression. Immigrants have always been a whipping boy for both parties, when expedient. So climb down off that high horse.

We can’t solve this issue overnight, and we can’t solve it at all with a Wall. But we can solve it, if we want too.