Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

How to Cure Health Care (Milton Friedman, 2001)
The Public Interest ^ | Winter 2001 | Milton Friedman

Posted on 06/14/2004 10:53:13 PM PDT by Remember_Salamis

How to Cure Health Care
By Milton Friedman

Archived Issue - Winter 2001

Since the end of World War II, the provision of medical care in the United States and other advanced countries has displayed three major features: first, rapid advance in the science of medicine; second, large increases in spending, both in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars per person and the fraction of national income spent on medical care; and third, rising dissatisfaction with the delivery of medical care, on the part of both consumers of medical care and physicians and other suppliers of medical care.

Rapid technological advance has occurred repeatedly since the industrial revolution - in agriculture, steam engine, railroad, telephone, electricity, automobile, radio, television, and, most recently, computers and telecommunication. The other two features seem unique to medicine. It is true that spending initially increased after nonmedical technical advances, but the fraction of national income spent did not increase dramatically after the initial phase of widespread acceptance. On the contrary, technological development lowered cost, so that the fraction of national income spent on food, transportation, communication, and much more has gone down, releasing resources to produce new products or services. Similarly, there seems no counterpart in these other areas to the rising dissatisfaction with the delivery of medical care.


<![if !supportLists]>I.                   <![endif]>International comparison


These developments in medicine have been worldwide. By their very nature, scientific advances know no geographical boundaries. Data on spending are readily available for 29 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. In every one, medical spending has gone up both in inflation-adjusted dollars per person and as a fraction of national income. Data are available for both 1960 and 1997 for 21 countries. In 13, spending more than doubled as a fraction of gross domestic product. The smallest increase was 67 percent, the largest, 378 percent. In 1997, 16 of the 29 OECD countries spent between 7 percent and 9 percent of gross domestic product on medical care. The United States spent 14 percent, the highest of any OECD country. Germany was a distant second at 11 percent; Turkey was the lowest at 4 percent.

A key difference between medical care and the other technological revolutions is the role of government. In other technological revolutions, the initiative, financing, production, and distribution were primarily private, though government sometimes played a supporting or regulatory role. In medical care, government has come to play a leading role in financing, producing, and delivering medical service. Direct government spending on health exceeds 75 percent of total health spending for 15 OECD countries. The United States is next to the lowest of the 29 countries, at 46 percent. In addition, some governments indirectly subsidize medical care through favorable tax treatment. For the United States, such subsidization raises the fraction of health spending financed directly or indirectly by government to over 50 percent.

What are countries getting for the money they are spending on medical care? What is the relation between input and output? Spending on medical care provides a reasonably good measure of input, but, unfortunately, there is no remotely satisfactory objective measure of output. For the hospital segment, number of beds occupied may at first seem like an objective measure. However, improvements in medicine have included a reduction in the length of hospital stay required for various medical procedures or illnesses. So, fewer patient days may be a sign of greater, not lesser, output. The desired output of medical care is "good health." But how can we quantify "good health," and equally important, allow for the role that factors other than medical care - such as plentiful food, pure water, and protective clothing - play in producing "good health"?

The least objectionable measure I have been able to find is expected length of life at birth or at various later ages, though that too is a far from unambiguous measure of the output attributable to spending on medical care. The remarkable increase in life span in advanced countries during the past century reflects much more than spending on medical care proper. Moreover, it does not allow for changes in the quality of life-attempted measurement of which is still in its infancy.

Figure 1 (see Appendix) shows the relation in 1996 for the 29 OECD countries between the percentage of the gross domestic product spent on medical care and the expected length of life at birth for females.1 The relation is clearly positive, though very loose.2 The United States and Germany are clear outliers, ranking first and second in spending but twentieth and seventeenth in length of life. As another indication of looseness, nine countries spent between 7 and 8 percent of GDP on medicine. The group includes Japan, which has the highest expected length of life (83.6 years), and the Czech Republic, fourth from the bottom (77.3 years). Clearly, many factors other than spending on medical care affect expected length of life.

Exploring that relation more fully, however worthwhile a project, is not the purpose of this article, which is to examine the situation in the United States. I have presented the data on the OECD countries primarily to document the two (related?) respects in which the United States is an outlier: We spend a higher percentage of national income on medical care (and more per capita) than any other OECD country, and government finances a smaller fraction of that spending than all except Korea.


II. Why third-party payment?


Two simple observations are key to explaining both the high level of spending on medical care and the dissatisfaction with that spending. The first is that most payments to physicians or hospitals or other caregivers for medical care are made not by the patient but by a third party - an insurance company or employer or governmental body. The second is that nobody spends somebody else's money as wisely or as frugally as he spends his own. These statements apply equally to other OECD countries. They do not by themselves explain why the United States spends so much more than other countries.

No third party is involved when we shop at a supermarket. We pay the supermarket clerk directly. The same for gasoline for our car, clothes for our back, and so on down the line. Why, by contrast, are most medical payments made by third parties? The answer for the United States begins with the fact that medical-care expenditures are exempt from the income tax if, and only if, medical care is provided by the employer. If an employee pays directly for medical care, the expenditure comes out of the employee's income after income tax. If the employer pays for the employee's medical care, the expenditure is treated as a tax-deductible expense for the employer and is not included as part of the employee's income subject to income tax. That strong incentive explains why most consumers get their medical care through their employer or their spouse's or their parents' employer. In the next place, the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 made the government a third-party payer for persons and medical care covered by those measures.

We have become so accustomed to employer-provided medical care that we regard it as part of the natural order. Yet it is thoroughly illogical. Why single out medical care? Food is more essential to life than medical care. Why not exempt the cost of food from taxes if provided by the employer? Why not return to the much-reviled company store when workers were in effect paid in kind rather than in cash?

The revival of the company store for medicine has less to do with logic than pure chance. It is a wonderful example of how one bad government policy leads to another. During World War II, the government financed much wartime spending by printing money while, at the same time, imposing wage and price controls. The resulting repressed inflation produced shortages of many goods and services, including labor. Firms competing to acquire labor at government-controlled wages started to offer medical care as a fringe benefit. That benefit proved particularly attractive to workers and spread rapidly.

Initially, employers did not report the value of a fringe benefit to the Internal Revenue Service as part of their workers' wages. It took some time before the IRS realized what was going on. When it did, it issued regulations requiring employers to include the value of medical care as part of reported employees' wages. By this time, workers had become accustomed to the tax exemption of that particular fringe benefit and made a big fuss. Congress responded by legislating that medical care provided by employers should be tax-exempt.


III. Effect of third-party payment on medical costs


The tax exemption of employer-provided medical care has two different effects, both of which raise health costs. First, it leads employees to rely on their employer, rather than themselves, to make arrangements for medical care. Yet employees are likely to do a better job of monitoring medical-care providers, because it is in their own interest, than is the employer or the insurance company or companies designated by the employer. Second, it leads employees to take a larger fraction of their total remuneration in the form of medical care than they would if spending on medical care had the same tax status as other expenditures.

If the tax exemption were removed, employees could bargain with their employers for a higher take-home pay in lieu of medical care and provide for their own medical care either by dealing directly with medical-care providers or by purchasing medical insurance. Removal of the tax exemption would enable governments to reduce the tax rate on income while raising the same total revenue. This hidden subsidy for medical care, currently more than $100 billion a year, is not included in reported figures on government health spending.

Extending the tax exemption to all medical care - as in the current limited provision for medical savings accounts and the proposals to make such accounts more widely available - would reduce reliance on third-party payment. But, by extending the hidden subsidy to all medical-care expenditures, it would increase the tendency of employees to take a larger portion of their remuneration in the form of medical care. (I will more fully discuss medical savings accounts in the conclusion.)

Enactment of Medicare and Medicaid provided a direct subsidy for medical care. The cost grew much more rapidly than originally estimated - as the cost of all handouts invariably do. Legislation cannot repeal the non-legislated law of demand and supply. The lower the price, the greater the quantity demanded; at a zero price, the quantity demanded becomes infinite. Some method of rationing must be substituted for price and that invariably means administrative rationing.

Figure 2 provides an estimate of the effect on medical costs of tax exemption and the subsequent enactment of Medicare and Medicaid. The top line in the chart is actual per capita spending on medical care expressed in constant 1992 prices, to allow for the effect of inflation. Spending multiplied more than 23-fold from 1919 to 1997, going from $155 per capita to $3,625. The bottom line shows what would have happened to per capita spending if it had continued to rise at the same rate as it did from 1919 to 1940 (3.1 percent per year). On that assumption, per capita spending would have risen to $1,751, instead of $3,625 by 1997, or less than half as much.3,4

To estimate the separate effects of tax exemption and of Medicare and Medicaid, the second line shows what would have happened to spending if, after Medicare and Medicaid were enacted, spending had continued to rise at the same rate as it did from 1946 to 1965 (4 percent per year). The segment between the two bottom lines shows the effect of tax exemption; the segment between the two top lines shows the effect of the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid. According to these estimates, tax exemption accounts for 57 percent of the increase in cost; Medicare and Medicaid, 43 percent.

Figure 3 presents a different breakdown of the cost of medical care: between the part paid directly by the government and the part paid privately. As the figure shows, the government share has been growing over the whole period. Government's share went from one-eighth of the total in 1919 to nearly a quarter in 1946 to a quarter in 1965 to nearly half in 1997. The rise in the government's share has been accompanied by centralization of spending - from primarily by state and local governments to primarily by the federal government. We are headed toward completely socialized medicine and are already halfway there, if in addition to direct costs, we include indirect tax subsidies.

Expressed as a fraction of national income, spending on medical care went from 3 percent of the national income in 1919 to 4.5 percent in 1946, to 7 percent in 1965 to a mind-boggling 17 percent in 1997.5 No other country in the world approaches that level of spending as a fraction of national income no matter how its medical care is organized. The change in the role of medical care in the U.S. economy is truly breathtaking. To illustrate, in 1946, seven times as much was spent on food, beverages, and tobacco as on medical care; in 1996, 50 years later, more was spent on medical care than on food, beverages, and tobacco. In 1946, twice as much was spent on transportation as on medical care; in 1996, one-and-a-half times as much was spent on medical care as on transportation.


IV. The changing meaning of insurance


Employer financing of medical care has caused the term "insurance" to acquire a rather different meaning in medicine than in most other contexts. We generally rely on insurance to protect us against events that are highly unlikely to occur but involve large losses if they do occur - major catastrophes, not minor regularly recurring expenses. We insure our houses against loss from fire, not against the cost of having to cut the lawn. We insure our cars against liability to others or major damage, not against having to pay for gasoline. Yet in medicine, it has become common to rely on insurance to pay for regular medical examinations and often for prescriptions.

This is partly a question of the size of the deductible and the co-payment, but it goes beyond that. "Without medical insurance" and "without access to medical care" have come to be treated as nearly synonymous. Moreover, the states and the federal government have increasingly specified the coverage of insurance for medical care to a detail not common in other areas. The effect has been to raise the cost of insurance and to limit the options open to individuals. Many, if not most, of the "medically uninsured" are persons who for one reason or another do not have access to employer-provided medical care and are not willing to pay the cost of the only kinds of insurance contracts available to them.

If tax exemption for employer-provided medical care and Medicare and Medicaid had never been enacted, the insurance market for medical care would probably have developed as other insurance markets have. The typical form of medical insurance would have been catastrophic insurance - i.e., insurance with a very high deductible.


V. Bureaucratization and Gammon's Law


Third-party payment has required the bureaucratization of medical care and, in the process, has changed the character of the relation between physicians or other caregivers and patients. A medical transaction is not simply between a caregiver and a patient; it has to be approved as "covered" by a bureaucrat and the appropriate payment authorized. The patient, the recipient of the medical care, has little or no incentive to be concerned about the cost - since it's somebody else's money. The caregiver has become, in effect, an employee of the insurance company or, in the case of Medicare and Medicaid, the government. The patient is no longer the one, and the only one, the caregiver has to serve. An inescapable result is that the interest of the patient is often in direct conflict with the interest of the caregiver's ultimate employer. That has been manifest in public dissatisfaction with the increasingly impersonal character of medical care.

Some years ago, the British physician Max Gammon, after an extensive study of the British system of socialized medicine, formulated what he called "the theory of bureaucratic displacement." In Health and Security, he observed that in "a bureaucratic system ... increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production.... Such systems will act rather like 'black holes,' in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of 'emitted production.'" Gammon's observations for the British system have their exact parallel in the partly socialized U.S. medical system. Here too input has been going up sharply relative to output. This tendency can be documented particularly clearly for hospitals, thanks to the availability of high quality data for a long period.

Before 1940, output, as measured by number of patient days per 1,000 population (equal to the number of occupied beds per 1,000 population) and input, as measured by cost per 1,000 population, both rose (input somewhat more than output presumably because of the introduction of more sophisticated and expensive treatments). The number of occupied beds per resident of the United States rose from 1929 to 1940 at the rate of 2.4 percent per year; the cost of hospital care per resident, adjusted for inflation, at 5 percent per year; and the cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, at 2 percent per year.

The situation changed drastically after the war, as Figure 4 and the top part of Table 1 show. From 1946 to 1996, the number of beds per 1,000 population fell by more than 60 percent; the fraction of beds occupied, by more than 20 percent. In sharp contrast, input skyrocketed. Hospital personnel per occupied bed multiplied nine-fold, and cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, an astounding 40-fold, from $30 in 1946 to $1,200 in 1996 (at 1992 prices). A major engine of these changes was the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. A mild rise in input was turned into a meteoric rise; a mild fall in output, into a rapid decline. The 40-fold increase in the cost per patient day was converted into a 13-fold increase in hospital cost per resident of the United States by the sharp decline in output. Hospital days per person per year were cut by two-thirds, from three days in 1946 to an average of less than a day by 1996.

Taken by itself, the decline in hospital days is evidence of progress in medical science. A healthy population needs less hospitalization, and advances in science and medical technology have reduced the length of hospital stays and increased outpatient surgery. Progress in medical science may well explain most of the decline in output; it does not explain much, if any, of the rise in input per unit of output. True, medical machines have become more complex. However, in other areas where there has been great technical progress - whether it be agriculture or telephones or steel or automobiles or aviation or, most recently, computers and the Internet - progress has led to a reduction, not an increase, in cost per unit of output. Why is medicine an exception? Gammon's law, not medical miracles, was clearly at work. The provision of medical care as an untaxed fringe benefit by employers, and then the federal government's assumption of responsibility for hospital and medical care of the elderly and the poor, provided a fresh pool of money. And there was no shortage of takers. Growing costs, in turn, led to more regulation of hospitals and medical care, further increasing administrative costs, and leading to the bureaucratization that is so prominent a feature of medical care today.

Medicine is not the only area where this pattern has prevailed. Aside from defense and medicine, schooling is the only other major area of our society that is largely financed and administered by government, and here too Gammon's law has clearly operated. Input per unit of output, however measured, has clearly been going up; output, especially if measured in terms of quality, has been going down, and dissatisfaction, as in medicine, is growing. The same may well be true also in defense. However, measuring output independently of input is even more baffling for defense than for medicine.

To return to medicine, hospital cost has risen as a percentage of total medical cost from 24 percent in 1946 to 32 percent half a century later. The cost of physician services is currently the second largest component of total medical cost. It too has risen sharply, though less sharply than hospital costs. In 1946, the cost of physician services exceeded the cost of hospital services. According to the estimates in Table 1, the cost of physician services has multiplied four-fold since 1946, the major rise coming after the adoption of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

Figure 5 shows what has happened to the number of physicians and their income. The number almost doubled, and the income per physician almost tripled over the half-century from 1946 to 1996. Both reflect the increase in funds available to finance medical care and the third-party character of payment. The demand for physician services went up, and income had to go up to attract additional physicians. Paradoxically, the attempt by third-party payers - particularly the federal government - to keep costs down has been at least partly self-defeating, because it took the form of imposing onerous rules and regulations on physicians. The resultant bureaucratization of medical practice has made the practice of medicine less attractive as an occupation to most actual and potential physicians, which increased the necessary rise in incomes. It has also reduced their productivity.


VI. Medical-care output


So much for input. What about output? What have we gotten in return for quadrupling the share of the nation's income spent on medical care?

I have already referred to one component of output - days of hospital care per person per year. That has gone down from three days in 1946 to less than one in 1996. Insofar as the reduction reflects the improvements in medicine, it clearly is a good thing. However, it also reflects the pressure to keep hospital stays short in order to keep down cost. That this is not a good thing is clear from protests by patients, widespread enough to have led Congress to mandate minimum stays for some medical procedures.

The output of the medical-care industry that we are interested in is its contribution to better health. How can we measure better health in a reasonably objective way that is not greatly influenced by other factors? For example, if medical care enables people to live longer and healthier lives, we might expect that the fraction of persons aged 65 to 70 who continue to work would go up. In fact, of course, the fraction has gone down drastically - thanks to higher incomes reinforced by financial incentives from Social Security. With the same "if" we might expect the fraction of the population classified as disabled to go down, but that fraction has gone up, again not for reasons of health but because of government social security programs. And so I have found with one initially plausible measure after another - all of them are too contaminated by other factors to reflect the output of the medical-care industry.

As noted earlier, the least bad measure that I have been able to come up with is length of life, though that too is seriously contaminated by other factors - improvements in diet, housing, clothing, and so on generated by greater affluence, better garbage collection and disposal, the provision of purer water, and other governmental public-health measures. Wars, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters have played a part. Even more important, the quality of life is as meaningful as the length of life. Perhaps the extensive research on aging currently underway will lead to a better measure than length of life.

Figures 6 and 7 present two different sets of data on expected length of life: Figure 6, expected length of life at birth; Figure 7, remaining length of life at age 65. Both cover the whole century, from 1900 to 1997, the last year for which I was able to get data. For Figure 6 the data are annual; for Figure 7, decennial until recent years. The two tell very different, but equally remarkable, stories.

Expected longevity went from 47 years in 1900 to 68 years in 1950, a truly remarkable rise that proceeded at a fairly steady rate, averaging four-tenths of a year per year. Public-health activities, such as those leading to cleaner water and air and better control of epidemics, played a major role in lengthening life, no doubt; but so too did improvements in medical practice and hospital care, particularly those leading to a sharp reduction in infant and maternal mortality. Whatever its source, the increase in longevity did not have any systematic relation to spending on medical care as a fraction of income. We have reasonably accurate data on spending only from 1929 on; crude data from 1919 on. Except for the deep depression years of 1932 and 1933, national health spending never exceeded 5 percent of national income, and from 1919 to 1948, varied between 3 and 5 percent, primarily as a result of wider swings in national income than in health spending.

The most striking feature of Figure 6 is the sharp slowdown in the increase in longevity after 1950. From 1950 on, longevity grew at less than half the rate that it grew from 1900 to 1950-averaging less than two-tenths of a year per year compared to the earlier four-tenths.6 In the first 50 years of the century, the life span increased by 21 years; in the next 47 years, by eight years. As in the first 50 years, the increase proceeded at a surprisingly steady pace. I have no good explanation for the shift from one trend to the other. I conjecture that it reflects the exhaustion by the end of World War II of the possibility of further major improvements from public-health activity. I leave it to scholars more knowledgeable about medicine than I to give a more satisfactory answer.

The later trend was accompanied, as the earlier one was not, by a major increase in spending as a fraction of national income. However, I attribute that increase in spending to the changes in the economic organization of medical care discussed earlier. I doubt that it is related as either cause or effect to the slowdown in the growth of longevity.

Data are much less readily available for longevity at age 65 than at birth, so I have resorted to the use of decennial estimates except for the most recent year. Figure 7 is almost the mirror image of Figure 6 - that is, the same picture reversed. Instead of first rising rapidly and then slowly, longevity at age 65 at first rose slowly and then rapidly. Until 1940, longevity rose at an average of only .025 years per year. Remaining years of life went from 12 - or to age 77 - in 1900 to 13 - or age 78 - in 1940. Then there was a sharp acceleration, and in the next 57 years, remaining years of life went up by an additional five years to 18 - or age 83, rising at the average rate of .085 years per year. Understandably, both the earlier and the later rates of growth in longevity at age 65 are much smaller than the comparable figures for longevity at birth. The remarkable phenomenon is the shift in trend around 1940, and the steadiness of the trend both before and after 1940.

Data for later years of life suggests that the steadiness of the trend in longevity at age 65 is not likely to continue. At these later ages, there has been a distinct slowing of increases in longevity since about 1980. At age 85, remaining years of life for females has not changed in the 17 years from 1980 to 1997. It was 6.4 years in both 1980 and 1997.7

What caused the change in the trend at age 65, and why was that change in the opposite direction from the change in the trend at birth, and why did it occur about 10 years earlier? Could it have been the emergence of penicillin and sulfa at around 1940 that explains the dating of the shift? No doubt many other advances in medicine, from the handling of blood pressure to the perfecting of open-heart surgery, the improved treatment of cancer, and the better understanding of diet were of special importance for preventing death at later ages. I am incompetent to judge these matters and their relative importance. But I have no doubt that one economic change also played an important role. That was the sharp improvement in the economic status of the elderly brought about by government transfer programs, notably Social Security. From being among the poorest groups in society, the elderly have become among the most affluent in the post-World War II period.

However interesting these speculations may be, they are a long way from providing an answer to the question with which we started this section, namely, "What have we gotten in return for quadrupling the share of the nation's income spent on medical care?" The slowdown in the increase of longevity at birth started before tax exemption and Medicare had any effect on spending. Similarly, the acceleration in the increase in longevity at age 65 started 25 years before Medicare was enacted and showed no speedup thereafter. Perhaps better measures of the health of the population and various subgroups will show a relation to total spending. But on the evidence to date, it is hard to see that we have gotten much for that spending other than bureaucratization and widespread dissatisfaction with the economic organization of medical care.


VII. The United States vs. other countries


Our steady movement toward reliance on third-party payment no doubt explains the extraordinary rise in spending on medical care in the United States. However, other advanced countries also rely on third-party payment, many or most of them to an even greater extent than we do. What explains our higher level of spending?

I must confess that despite much thought and scouring of the literature, I have no satisfactory answer. One clue is my estimate that if the pre-World War II system had continued - that is, if tax exemption and Medicare and Medicaid had never been enacted - expenditures on medical care would have amounted to less than half its current level, which would have put us near the bottom of the OECD list rather than at the top.

In terms of holding down cost, one-payer directly administered government systems, such as exist in Canada and Great Britain, have a real advantage over our mixed system. As the direct purchaser of all or nearly all medical services, they are in a monopoly position in hiring physicians and can hold down their remuneration, so that physicians earn much less in those countries than in the United States. In addition, they can ration care more directly - at the cost of long waiting lists and much dissatisfaction.8

In addition, once the whole population is covered, there is little political incentive to increase spending on medical care. In an insightful analysis of political entrepreneurship, W. Allen Wallis noted that

one of the ways politicians compete for votes is by offering to have the government provide new services. For an offer of a new service to have substantial electoral impact, the service ordinarily must be one that a large number of voters is familiar with, and in fact already use. The most effective innovations for a political entrepreneur to offer, therefore, are those whose effect is to transfer from individuals to the government the costs of services which are already in existence, not to alter appreciably the amount of the service reaching the people.9

Medicare, Medicaid, the political stress on the "uninsured," and the current political pressure for government financing of prescriptions all exemplify this phenomenon. Once the bulk of costs have been taken over by government, as they have in most of the other OECD countries, the political entrepreneur has no additional groups to attract, and attention turns to holding down costs.

An additional factor is the tax treatment of private expenditures on medical care. In most countries, any private expenditure comes out of after-tax income. It does in the United States also, unless the medical care is provided by the employer. For this reason, the bulk of medical care is provided through employers, and private expenditures on medical care are decidedly higher than they would be if medical care, like food, clothing, and other consumer goods, had to be financed out of post-tax income. It is consistent with this view that Germany, the country second to the United States in the fraction of income spent on medical care, has a system in which the employer plays a central role in the provision of medical care and in which, so far as I have been able to determine, half of the cost comes out of pre-tax income, half out of post-tax income.

Our mixed system has many advantages in accessibility and quality of medical care, but it has produced a higher level of cost than would result from either wholly individual choice or wholly collective choice.


VIII. Medical savings accounts and beyond


The high cost and inequitable character of our medical-care system is the direct result of our steady movement toward reliance on third-party payment. A cure requires reversing course, reprivatizing medical care by eliminating most third-party payment, and restoring the role of insurance to providing protection against major medical catastrophes.

The ideal way to do that would be to reverse past actions: repeal the tax exemption of employer-provided medical care; terminate Medicare and Medicaid; deregulate most insurance; and restrict the role of the government, preferably state and local rather than federal, to financing care for the hard cases. However, the vested interests that have grown up around the existing system, and the tyranny of the status quo, clearly make that solution not feasible politically. Yet it is worth stating the ideal as a guide to judging whether proposed incremental changes are in the right direction.

Most changes made in the final decade of the twentieth century have been in the wrong direction. Despite rejection of the sweeping socialization of medicine proposed by Hillary Clinton, subsequent incremental changes have expanded the role of government, increased regulation of medical practice, and further constrained the terms of medical insurance, thereby raising its cost and increasing the fraction of individuals who choose or are forced to go without insurance.

There is one exception, which, though minor in current scope, is pregnant of future possibilities. The Kassebaum-Kennedy bill, passed in 1996 after lengthy and acrimonious debate, included a narrowly limited four-year pilot program authorizing medical savings accounts. A medical savings account enables individuals to deposit tax-free funds in an account usable only for medical expense, provided they have a high-deductible insurance policy that limits the maximum out-of-pocket expense. As noted earlier, it eliminates third-party payment except for major medical expenses and is thus a movement very much in the right direction. By extending tax exemption to all medical expenses whether paid by the employer or not, it eliminates the present bias in favor of employer-provided medical care. That too is a move in the right direction. However, the extension of tax exemption increases the bias in favor of medical care compared to other household expenditures. This effect would tend to increase the implicit government subsidy for medical care, which would be a step in the wrong direction.10 But, on balance, given how large a fraction of current medical expenditures are exempt, it seems likely that the net effect of widely available and flexible medical savings accounts would be very much in the right direction.

However, the current pilot program is neither widely available nor flexible. The act limits the number of medical savings accounts to no more than 750,000 policies, available only to the self-employed who are uninsured and employees at firms with 50 or fewer employees. Moreover, the act specifies the precise terms of the medical savings account and the associated insurance. Finally, at the end of four years (the year 2000) Congress will have to vote to continue or change the program. (Those who signed up in the first four years would be entitled to continue their accounts even if Congress terminates the program.) A number of representatives and senators have indicated their intention to introduce bills to extend and widen the availability of medical savings accounts.

Prior to this pilot project, a number of large companies (e.g., Quaker Oats, Forbes, Golden Rule Insurance Co.) had offered their employees the choice of a medical savings account instead of the usual low-deductible employer-provided insurance policy. In each case, the employer purchased a high-deductible major medical insurance policy for the employee and deposited a stated sum, generally about half of the deductible, in a medical savings account for the employee. That sum could be used by the employee for medical care. Any part not used during the year was the property of the employee and had to be included in taxable income. Despite this loss of tax exemption, this alternative has generally been very popular with both employers and employees. It has reduced costs for the employer and empowered the employee, eliminating much third-party payment.

Medical savings accounts offer one way to resolve the growing financial and administrative problems of Medicare and Medicaid. Each current participant could be given the alternative of continuing with present arrangements or receiving a high-deductible major medical insurance policy and a specified deposit in a medical savings account. New entrants would be required to accept the alternative. Many details would have to be worked out: the size of the deductible and the deposit in the medical savings account, the size of any co-payment, and whether additional medical spending would be tax-exempt. Yet it seems clear from private experience that a program along these lines would be less expensive and bureaucratic than the current system, and more satisfactory to the participants. In effect, it would be a way to voucherize Medicare and Medicaid. It would enable participants to spend their own money on themselves for routine medical care and medical problems, rather than having to go through HMOs and insurance companies, while at the same time providing protection against medical catastrophes.

An interesting and instructive experiment with medical savings accounts has recently taken place in South Africa, as explained by Shaun Matisonn of the National Center for Policy Analysis:

For most of the last decade [the nineties] - under the leadership of Nelson Mandela - South Africa enjoyed what was probably the freest market for health insurance anywhere in the world.... South Africa's insurance regulations were and are sufficiently flexible to allow the type of innovation and experimentation that American law stifles.... The result has been remarkable.... In just five years, MSA plans captured half the market, proving that they are popular and meet consumer needs as well as or better than rival products. South Africa's experience with MSAs shows that MSA holders save money, spending less on discretionary items in a way that does not increase the cost of inpatient care. Contrary to allegations by some critics, the South African experience also shows that MSAs attract individuals of all different ages and different degrees of health.

A more radical reform would, first, end both Medicare and Medicaid, at least for new entrants, and replace them by providing every family in the United States with catastrophic insurance - i.e., a major medical policy with a high deductible. Second, it would end tax exemption of employer-provided medical care. And third, it would remove the restrictive regulations that are now imposed on medical insurance - hard to justify with universal catastrophic insurance.

This reform would solve the problem of the currently medically uninsured, eliminate most of the bureaucratic structure, free medical practitioners from an increasingly heavy burden of paperwork and regulation, and lead many employers and employees to convert employer-provided medical care into a higher cash wage. The taxpayer would save money because total government costs would plummet. The family would be relieved of one of its major concerns - the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe - and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs. Families would once again have an incentive to monitor the providers of medical care and to establish the kind of personal relations with them that were once customary. The demonstrated efficiency of private enterprise would have a chance to improve the quality and lower the cost of medical care. The first question asked of a patient entering a hospital might once again become "What's wrong?" and not "What's your insurance?"

While so radical a reform is almost surely not politically feasible at the moment, it may become so as dissatisfaction with the current arrangements continue to grow. And again, it gives a standard - if less than an ideal one - against which to judge incremental changes.

<![if !vml]><![endif]>

<![if !vml]><![endif]>

<![if !vml]><![endif]>

<![if !vml]><![endif]>

<![if !vml]><![endif]>

<![if !vml]><![endif]>

<![if !vml]><![endif]>

<![if !vml]><![endif]>


1 Females only are included to remove one source of irrelevant difference among countries. In general, females tend to have a longer expected length of life than males, and countries differ in the ratio of males to females. The correlation of expected length of life with per capita spending on medical care in dollars is almost the same as with percent of GDP spent on medical care.

2 The correlation is partly spurious because percent spent tends to be positively correlated with real GDP, and real GDP is positively correlated with length of life for given percent spent. However, the partial correlation of percent spent with length of life is statistically significant and higher than the partial correlation of real GDP with length of life.

3 In an extensive study, the Rand Corporation compared the effect of different health-insurance plans, varying from one with no deductible and no co-payment - that is, free medical care - to one with 95 percent co-payment, very close to complete private responsibility. In his summary of the results, Joseph Newhouse concluded that, "had there been no MDE [maximum deductible expense], demand on the 95 percent coinsurance plan would have been a little over half as large as on the free care plan," and an accompanying table gives 55 percent as the actual fraction.

The 1997 value of the extrapolated trend from 1919-1940 is 48 percent of on a completely independent set of data. See Joseph P. Newhouse, Free for All? Lessons from Rand Health Insurance Experiment (Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 458.

4 Had this been the total expenditure in 1996, the United States would have ranked twenty-first, rather than first, among the 29 OECD countries in fraction of income spent on medical care.

5 The figure of 14 percent referred to earlier was from OECD data; it referred to 1996 rather than 1997 and to percent of gross domestic product, not national income.

6 I have used data for the population as a whole, although data are also available by sex and race. There are minor differences between the sexes and between the races, but the broad picture is essentially the same for all, so I have not thought it worthwhile to present more detailed data, as I did in Input and Output in Medical Care (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1992).

7 I am indebted to James Fries, a leading expert on aging, for calling this phenomenon to my attention. The data cited are from Metropolitan Life Insurance Statistical Bulletin, Oct.-Dec., 1998.

8 See Cynthia Ramsay and Michael Walker, Critical Issues Bulletin: Waiting Your Turn, 7th edition (Vancouver, B.C., Canada: Fraser Institute, 1997).

9 W. Allen Wallis, An Overgoverned Society (Free Press, 1976), p. 256.

10 Whether medical savings accounts increase or decrease the government subsidy to medical care, including the hidden tax subsidy of tax exemption, depends on whether they raise or lower total medical expenditures exempted from tax. First-party payment works toward reducing such expenditures by giving consumers an incentive to economize and by reducing administrative costs. The availability of tax exemption to a wider class of medical expenses has the opposite effect. Such experience as we have with medical savings accounts or their equivalent suggests that the first effect is highly significant and is likely to overwhelm the second. However, this issue deserves more systematic investigation.

Milton Friedman is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author (with Rose D. Friedman) of Two Lucky People (University of Chicago Press, 1998). He received the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1976


TOPICS: Business/Economy; Constitution/Conservatism; Crime/Corruption; Culture/Society; Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Government; Miscellaneous; News/Current Events; Philosophy; Political Humor/Cartoons; Politics/Elections; Unclassified; Your Opinion/Questions
KEYWORDS: capitalism; care; conservatism; freedom; freemarket; freetochoose; friedman; health; healthcare; hooverinstitute; milton; miltonfriedman; monetarism; privatization; socializedmedicine; socialzedmedicine

1 posted on 06/14/2004 10:53:14 PM PDT by Remember_Salamis
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

While some medical procedures (like elective cosmetic surgery) allow for informed consumer choice done at leisure, and hence for market solution to their delivery, other (majority) of medical needs are of more urgent nature and hence do not leave would-be patient with either sufficient time and/or with sufficiently unclouded judgment to make an informed consumer choice. Therefore the government will always muddle it.

2 posted on 06/14/2004 11:09:23 PM PDT by GSlob
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

Milton Friedman bump! (the man is a genius)

3 posted on 06/14/2004 11:15:27 PM PDT by RWR8189 (Its Morning in America Again!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis
repeal the tax exemption of employer-provided medical care; terminate Medicare and Medicaid; deregulate most insurance; and restrict the role of the government, preferably state and local rather than federal, to financing care for the hard cases

Amen, brother. My parents, in the 1950's paid $35 a month for medical coverage for a family of 5 and the doctor came to OUR HOUSE when we were sick.

MSA's are great, but Kennedy butchered the last version and only the self-employed can get the benefit.

4 posted on 06/14/2004 11:19:32 PM PDT by GVnana
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

thanks for posting this. I admire Milton's brain power. And this article has more than a few "I did not know that" moments..

5 posted on 06/14/2004 11:28:52 PM PDT by D-fendr
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

My father is truly prescient! I remember him watching Ronald Reagan on TV in 1960 and commenting: "Why can't someone like Reagan run for President?"

In the 1970's, with the enactment of Medicare, my father's analysis was that the medical system was doomed to failure unless medical insurance was outlawed, except for disaster coverage. He pointed out that any system which has one party consuming while another party produces and a third party paying, does not contain the proper checks and balances to control pricing.

Friedman took this whole article to come to the same conclusion: "A cure requires reversing course, reprivatizing medical care by eliminating most third-party payment, and restoring the role of insurance to providing protection against major medical catastrophes."

6 posted on 06/14/2004 11:32:27 PM PDT by the_Watchman
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis


7 posted on 06/14/2004 11:32:50 PM PDT by Dick Vomer (liberals suck......... but it depends on what your definition of the word "suck" is.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: GVgirl
Amen, brother. My parents, in the 1950's paid $35 a month for medical coverage for a family of 5 and the doctor came to OUR HOUSE when we were sick.

Yeah, but to be fair, you got 1950s health care. Iron lungs they could provide. Stents and MRIs they couldn't. Health care has become more expensive in part because it's become more successful and sophisticated. Anybody else remember back when a heart attack was a death sentence? Now it's a less of an inconvenience than breaking your leg. I'm willing to pay for that.

8 posted on 06/14/2004 11:47:16 PM PDT by SedVictaCatoni (For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: SedVictaCatoni

I think if you read a little deeper into Friedman's analysis you'd find that our insurance payments are not generating medical advances.

9 posted on 06/15/2004 12:26:57 AM PDT by GVnana
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: SedVictaCatoni
Health care has become more expensive in part because it's become more successful and sophisticated.

This is the common point of view, but is it true? Other forms of technology, such as cell phone, computers, and digital cameras have decreased in price while the power and functionality has increased.

10 posted on 06/15/2004 12:32:06 AM PDT by The Truth Will Make You Free
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

Read later...

11 posted on 06/15/2004 12:50:08 AM PDT by Patangeles
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis
Finally, a Conservative addresses this issue in depth. Huge administrative fees in the insurance industry, combined with the resultant fees charged by Doctors/Hospitals to deal with these people has lead to a crisis.

Huge sums of money, that could be going to actual health care, are being paid to people who push paper around. Don't even get me started on the ethics of Doctors and nurses who work for insurance companies.

The Dems started this with the HMO; they realized it was a way to socialize medicine. We need to find another way...ASAP.

12 posted on 06/15/2004 1:17:43 AM PDT by garandgal
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

I'd love to see Milton Friedman nominated for Fed Chairman.

13 posted on 06/15/2004 2:47:59 AM PDT by 10mm
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: garandgal

I'm particularly bothered by having to switch doctors every few years because your insurance changes, or you no longer have it, as we are temporarily experiencing. So much for building a relationship with your're lucky if you see him or her once before it's time to switch providers again because your employer is changing to a different plan!

14 posted on 06/15/2004 2:56:23 AM PDT by IrishRainy
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: GVgirl

Then look into the new HSA's.

15 posted on 06/15/2004 4:30:24 AM PDT by vharlow
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: The Truth Will Make You Free
Glad to see you raise the question. I'm sure there are some advances in medicine but overall, modern medicine is overrated. Just stop to think about it. They cannot treat chronic illness successfully at all.

Last week I read that cancer patients are living longer from time of detection. That may mean that it was only detected earlier and that the treatment had no effect on longevity.

My grandmother is the only person I know that chose to have absolutely no treatment for her breast cancer. She lived seven years from the time she finally told someone about the lump in her breast.

I can tell you story after story. All these drugs create side effects which demand more drugs. I have no confidence in modern medicine, at all. Trauma medicine is necessary and effective. I do believe they've made progress.

16 posted on 06/15/2004 4:44:52 AM PDT by Conservativegreatgrandma
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

Excellent ideas!

17 posted on 06/15/2004 4:52:30 AM PDT by NewCenturions
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: vharlow

Thanks. Did a google search on HSA (had never heard of them) and it looks interesting. But I'd have to get my employer on board.

18 posted on 06/15/2004 7:00:20 AM PDT by GVnana
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 15 | View Replies]

To: The Truth Will Make You Free
This is the common point of view, but is it true? Other forms of technology, such as cell phone, computers, and digital cameras have decreased in price while the power and functionality has increased.

Notice that you mentioned products and I mentioned services. That's the difference. Cell phones and digital cameras are cheap because they're made in Malaysia.

19 posted on 06/15/2004 8:16:53 AM PDT by SedVictaCatoni (For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: Conservativegreatgrandma
Glad to see you raise the question. I'm sure there are some advances in medicine but overall, modern medicine is overrated.

That is utterly ridiculous. Depending on where you draw the line at "modern" medicine, ask yourself if you've seen any kids crippled by polio lately, or seen anybody in an iron lung. Ask yourself if you've ever heard of an angioplasty, or an ultrasound examination, or a CAT scan. Is it "overrated" that tearing your ACL no longer means that you're hobbled, or that a heart attack no longer means that you flat-out die, or that nobody seems to have died of the German measles lately?

It's a long logical leap from "they still can't sure cancer" to "modern medicine is overrated".

20 posted on 06/15/2004 8:22:55 AM PDT by SedVictaCatoni (For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 16 | View Replies]

To: SedVictaCatoni

Actually, Mr. Friedman's article shows that's NOT true for the most part. By comparing it to advances in other industries, you really get to see how whacked the Health Care system truly is.

21 posted on 06/15/2004 10:14:23 AM PDT by Remember_Salamis (Freedom is Not Free)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis


No hope of this solution being adopted, but it would solve the problem.

22 posted on 06/15/2004 10:16:14 AM PDT by Sam Cree (Democrats are herd animals)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

Here's the problem with my insurance. I'm self-employed, so I had to purchase it myself. I would have liked to purchase a catastrophic plan, but that was not allowed in my state. No, no! New York wants me to have good insurance. So my insurance pays for my doctors' visits (minus $20 co-pay). It pays for my drugs (minus $10 co-pay). It pays for all kinds of things I don't need - like infertility care. I'm 25 for crying out loud! Infertility is the last thing on my mind. But no, New York thinks I need it. Consequently, to have insurance in case I'm hit by a bus (only reason I really need it) I am paying $286 a month. And that's actually a discounted rate.

23 posted on 06/15/2004 10:24:22 AM PDT by laurav
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Sam Cree
Actually, there is a simple way to fix the problem: pull the rug out from under the third-party payer system.

This can be done by eliminating corporate taxes. If there are no more corporate taxes, there is not TAX BENEFIT to providing health insurance. It should be simultaneously eliminated along with corporate welfare.

According to the CATO institute, revenues from corporate taxes and corporate welfare payouts are almost the exact same amount, effectively redistributing wealth within the business community. If both programs are eliminated, this shift would be cost-free. And as a bonus, continuation of corporate welfare would be hard to defend for many democrats, which would help its passage.

Therefore, I believe one of the first acts of a second Bush Administration should be to end the redistribution of corporate income. This would start the slow death of the third-party payer system and begin the birth of a true consumer-based system with catastrophic health coverage... and their accompanying Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs). This would all make sense politically for the GOP as well: demand for full-blown MSAs would skyrocket, and the GOP would be happy to give them to voters. Of course, this would do little to fix the Medicare/Medicaid fiasco, but that can wait for President Bill Owens in 2008!
24 posted on 06/15/2004 10:33:10 AM PDT by Remember_Salamis (Freedom is Not Free)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 22 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

I like the way you think and wish what you and Cato propose would come to fruition.

I'm not sure either of the main political parties are willing to give up socialism, though, since they derive such power from it. But who knows, I'm sure the right people could make it happen.

25 posted on 06/15/2004 10:48:05 AM PDT by Sam Cree (Democrats are herd animals)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 24 | View Replies]

To: Sam Cree

READ THIS. It explains everything you want to know about American Corporatism. The man who wrote it, Robert Locke, will one day be an extremely prominent conservative writer. Here it is, from FrontPage Magazine:

What is American Corporatism?

By Robert Locke | September 13, 2002

We are probably heading into some economic heavy weather which will spur needed debate on what's right and wrong with our economy. This will require our being clear about what kind of economy we really have. I have mentioned before that we increasingly live not in a capitalist society but in a corporatist one, and I would like to flesh out this notion.

What is corporatism? In a (somewhat inaccurate) phrase, socialism for the bourgeois. It has the outward form of capitalism in that it preserves private ownership and private management, but with a crucial difference: as under socialism, government guarantees the flow of material goods, which under true capitalism it does not. In classical capitalism, what has been called the "night-watchman" state, government's role in the economy is simply to prevent force or fraud from disrupting the autonomous operation of the free market. The market is trusted to provide. Under corporatism, it is not, instead being systematically manipulated to deliver goods to political constituencies. This now includes basically everyone from the economic elite to ordinary consumers.

Unlike socialism, corporatism understands that direct government ownership of the means of production does not work, except in the limiting case of infrastructure.1 But it does not represent a half-way condition between capitalism and socialism. This is what the West European nations, with their mixed economies in which government owned whole industries, tried to create until Thatcherism. Corporatism blends socialism and capitalism not by giving each control of different parts of the economy, but by combining socialism's promise of a government-guaranteed flow of material goods with capitalism's private ownership and management.

What makes corporatism so politically irresistible is that it is attractive not just to the mass electorate, but to the economic elite as well. Big business, whatever its casuists at the Wall Street Journal editorial page may pretend, likes big government, except when big government gets greedy and tries to renegotiate the division of spoils. Although big business was an historic adversary of the introduction of the corporatist state, it eventually found common ground with it. The first thing big business has in common with big government is managerialism. The technocratic manager, who deals in impersonal mass aggregates, organizes through bureaucracy, and rules through expertise without assuming personal responsibility, is common to both. The second thing big business likes about big government is that it has a competitive advantage over small business in doing business with it and negotiating favors. Big government, in turn, likes big business because it is manageable; it does what it is told. It is much easier to impose affirmative action or racial sensitivity training on AT&T than on 50,000 corner stores. This is why big business has become a key enforcer of political correctness. The final thing big business likes about big government is that, unlike small government, it is powerful enough to socialize costs in exchange for a share of the profits.

The key historical moments in the development of American corporatism can be easily traced. It got its start from the realization, during the Progressive period around 1900, that the night-watchman state was too weak to make the large corporate actors of the economy play fair. The crucial premise that enters here is that the capitalist economy cannot be trusted to be self-regulating, as it previously had been. This collapse of trust was also implicit in the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve system. What the Great Depression did was destroy a second kind of trust: that the economy would reliably deliver material goods without government intervention. With these two different kinds of trust gone, corporatism becomes not only worthwhile, but necessary. Crucially, it becomes psychologically necessary, independently of whether government can deliver on its promises, because people instinctively turn to government as their protector.

Anyone who is serious about getting rid of corporatism must explain how they are going to restore these two kinds of trust or persuade people to live without them. In particular, it is almost certainly useless, as verified by the fact that government has grown under every postwar Republican administration, to try to nibble away at big government without renegotiating the social contract that underlies it. If we don't have a plan to renegotiate this social contract, we must face the fact that the electorate will demand that it be respected. Newt Gingrich, who thought that the failure of Clinton's health plan signified the electorate's rejection of "socialism," learned this the hard way.

Clearly, the New Deal was the biggest jump forward into corporatism, though this was not fully understood at the time. Many people, both pro and con, misunderstood it as a move towards socialism.2 As is well known, Roosevelt was an empiricist, not a systematic thinker, and many elements of the New Deal that were tried, such as the notorious National Recovery Administration, were rightly discarded. But the fundamental proposition, that government should take responsibility for ensuring the flow of material goods to the people, was rapidly embraced by the American people, which continues to embrace it today whether it admits it or not. When people demand that the government "do something" about a falling stock market, they are playing at capitalism while practicing corporatism.

The fundamental essence of corporatism is not technocratic but moral: what does government have the responsibility to do? What do people have the right to demand be done for them?

The economic Left likes corporatism for three reasons:

It satisfies its lust for power.

It makes possible attempts to redistribute income.

It enables them to practice #2 while remaining personally affluent.

The economic Right likes corporatism for three different reasons:
It enables them to realize capitalist profits while unloading some of the costs and risks onto the state.

The ability to intertwine government and business enables them to shape government policy to their liking.

They believe the corporatist state can deliver social peace and minimize costly disruptions.

This process has been described as "socializing the losses, privatizing the profits" by its leftist critics, who also call parts of it corporate welfare. What they don't get is that in a society which grants the fundamental premise that government should take care of everybody, government will, and big business is part of "everybody." Most economic arguments today are not between a socialistic ideal and a capitalistic one, as many seem to believe, but are arguments within the corporatist consensus. This consensus is incapable of gelling into a unitary consensus because it is supported by the two sides for different reasons. There is also no public, coherent ideology of corporatism because almost no-one is willing to admit they believe in it.
Let's look at some specific examples of corporatism:

The Export-Import Bank. This government agency helps finance exports of American products. The aim, laudable enough, is to create jobs in the US. But there is still the problem that doing this requires the government to consume capital, which might have created more jobs, (or just more wealth) if it had been allocated elsewhere. So this is classic corporatism: government allocating capital to private industry on the basis of political favoritism.

Agricultural price-supports. Contrary to myth, most of the money goes to agribusiness, not small farmers.

Industrial bailouts, like the recent one of the airlines. People do not trust the market to provide the airline service they think they "need." The truth is this country has more carriers than the market can support and a few should be allowed to die. No-one who really believes in free-market economics accepts the argument that jobs can be saved in the long run in this fashion.

Corporate bankruptcy law. This law assigns an artificial value, not supported by economics, to keeping dying companies alive, rather than letting the carcasses of competition's losers nourish the winners. It is responsible, for example, for preventing a needed cull of the airline business by letting Continental Airlines pass through its protections not once but twice.

Tariffs, quotas, and other trade restrictions. These transfer wealth from consumers to producers in the affected industries, whatever their other possible merits.

Affirmative action is generally viewed as a social-policy question rather than an economic-policy one, but it fits neatly into the corporatist model: government forces private industry to distribute jobs to a favored political constituency. If people really believed in markets, they would realize that irrational discrimination imposes a cost on employers, who therefore already have an incentive not to engage in it.

Fannie Mae, the government agency which raises money for mortgage loans in the private capital markets. This agency has deliberately been spinning out loans to sub-par borrowers who are doomed to default on them. It has become a major prop holding up real-estate prices, and is thus a key culprit in the ongoing mortgage bubble. Conservatives accept it on the grounds that home ownership makes people more conservative. But this may not be true forever if private ownership of housing becomes a public entitlement. This is part of an ongoing phenomenon that corporatism helps to drive: the erosion of the determination of political preferences by the ownership of property.3

Sallie Mae, the government agency which supervises student loans. The government has a system of directly-financed public universities, but is has also in effect annexed private universities. Cleverly, it uses a relatively small amount of public money to package the flow of a much larger amount of private capital to tuition. The principal problem with this is that it has become a subsidy machine for the spiraling cost of higher education. There is also the problem that any institution receiving federal funds becomes susceptible to regulations that otherwise wouldn't be legal. Bribes-if-you-do are a much less disruptive means of manipulating behavior than sanctions-if-you-don't, and corporatism hates disruption and loves business as usual.4 One way to interpret corporatism is as a systematic way for government to distribute bribes for submission to its authority.

In local government, corporatism is principally a matter of real estate. Let's take New York as an example, just because I know it best and the pattern is clearest here, though similar dynamics work in other locales to a greater or lesser degree. Basically, real estate development here has become so over-regulated and over-taxed that it is virtually impossible to do profitably without government help. Government is aware that it has strangled development, but still wants it to occur because voters want jobs, campaign contributors want their projects, and projects create patronage opportunities for politicians. Therefore, government selectively lifts the burden of taxation and regulation on certain projects to push them into the black. It does this with tax abatements, loan guarantees, zoning changes, condemnations, outright subsidies, tax-exempt bond issues, exemption from regulations, and selective public infrastructure investments. As a result, only projects with political support can happen, and every skyscraper is a monument to the political deals that enabled it to get built. The result is capitalist in the sense of being privately owned, but it is not a free market. Government is expected by developers to keep a steady flow of profits going (while keeping politically-unconnected competitors out of the game.) It is expected by construction unions to keep a steady flow of construction jobs. It is expected by the public to deliver shiny new skyscrapers full of jobs.

In science and technology, corporatism principally takes the form of federal government financing of research expenditures whose value is difficult for the private sector to capture on its own. Government pays for universities to provide industry with the raw feedstock of new discoveries that can be commercialized. State governments have entered this game on a lesser scale. Tax credits for research and development may also be interpreted as a public subsidy.

In the capital markets, the quintessential corporatist institution is the Federal Reserve Bank. Legally, it is not technically a government agency at all but a cartel of private banks. Prior to 1913, the maintenance of a viable capital market in the U.S. was not a government responsibility.5 From the 30's to the 70's, the Fed tried to institute the grand corporatist project of Keynesianism, but abandoned it when inflation proved it unworkable. Nevertheless, the responsibilities of the Fed have tended to grow as people expect it, for example, to bail out a falling stock market with cheap credit, as I have mentioned before.

Bankers are quite well aware that they can make speculative loans to financially weak nations and count on being bailed out by the government if anything goes wrong. Naturally, this creates a moral hazard, not to mention a misallocation of capital. But given that the Left wants to see capital allocated to the Third World, the Right wants banks to be profitable, and the public fears a crash, the bankers can always count on a bailout.

One can see how corporatism is likely to expand in the future. The privatization of Social Security is off for now, but remains inevitable, simply because there is no sustainable way to provide for a future income stream other than saving money now. But the stock market decline of the past few years has destroyed public trust that this market will always provide a reliable store of value, meaning that people will inevitably turn to government to make it provide one. What form this will take, cannot be predicted, but any privatization of Social Security will be accompanied by some governmental mechanism to stabilize investments. At best, this may mean diversification requirements. At worst, it may mean some horrible politicization of the capital markets.

The concept of corporatism provides a good way to analyze the failure of HillaryCare. With its attempt to involve private insurance companies, this plan clearly made a (clumsy) attempt to conform to the corporatist model. It was supported by big companies like GM, which saw it as a way to offload its huge health-care costs. Fundamentally, I think it would have worked if it hadn't been such an arrogant, secretive, heavy-handed, all-at-once undertaking. We are gradually getting the corporatist equivalent of socialized medicine in this country anyway. Corporatized medicine will mean nominally private health plans for the employed that are so heavily regulated in what they can charge and what they must provide that they might as well be run by government. It will mean requirements for all businesses to give their employees health coverage (something big business will love because it will destroy a lot of their small-business competitors.) It will mean regulation of drug prices, which will eventually make drug companies wards of the state. Lastly, Medicare and Medicaid will expand, with the help of state plans, to cover whomever is left, with a tacit subsidy to emergency rooms to cover the last dregs.

As I said, all these can be viewed as ways in which the corporatist state buys people's cooperation. But one cannot play this game without becoming susceptible to it, so that people buy the state's cooperation, too. Naturally, this produces the partly-valid complaint that we have a government for sale to the highest bidder. But in a society where people, institutions, and social groups are politically for sale to the highest bidder, what else could one possibly expect?

Both Right and Left like corporatism in practice and are very cozy with it. But they are also ambivalent about it in theory, because it contradicts many of their cherished ideological beliefs.6 At the level of ideological self-characterization, neither side has fully grasped what corporatism is nor can quite bring itself to admit that it endorses it. Thus in its utterances, the intellectual Left is still reflexively anti-corporate and the Right anti-government. Part of the twisted genius of Bill Clinton was that he came closer to admitting we live in a corporatist society than any previous president. Bush, who made his personal fortune off a public-private deal concerning a stadium, is just as good at playing the game in practice, but on the ideological plane he mistakenly thinks that what the corporatist synthesis takes from socialism is "compassion." Hence his painfully sincere efforts to be politically correct and nice about everybody, since he intuitively grasps that Americans will not accept the rhetoric of pure capitalism.

Realizing that our society is corporatist is the key to undoing many conservative misunderstandings. For example, we tend to be puzzled when the rich support the Left, which under classical capitalism they generally didn't. But in a society where government takes care of business, they often have a lot to gain from big government. Not to mention the fact that whole classes of the wealthy, i.e. lawyers, doctors, lobbyists, environmental consultants, defense contractors and others, make their money either helping people deal with government or are indirectly funded by government. Ownership of property used to make people conservative because they intuitively grasped that the means of the conservation of property were bound up with the means of the conservation of everything else: religious orthodoxy to social mores to cultural tradition to the Constitution. But now that corporatism has co-opted threats to property ownership, they don't feel the need for these things anymore.

I consider it highly unlikely that corporatism can be overthrown, though objectionable parts of it can certainly be fought. I will discuss what it means to be conservative in a corporatist environment in a future article. The key thing for us to understand is that many of our assumptions about what furthers our cause and what doesn't were derived under the conditions of a more capitalist society and increasingly no longer hold.

1 This is not to say that government is necessarily the most efficient owner of infrastructure; I am well aware of the arguments for private toll roads and investor-owned utilities. It's just that, compared with the state-owned steel mills and supermarkets of pre-Thatcher Europe or the Soviet Union, they are not obvious failures. The quality, cost and productivity of publicly-owned utilities compares acceptably to privately-owned ones. And privatization of natural monopolies has problems of its own, as we saw in the California electricity crisis, even if these problems are caused by politics and do not refute the free-market ideal itself.
2 The final irony of corporatism is that it represents the triumph of the one 20th-Century ideology that is considered so utterly discredited that most educated people don't even bother to learn what it believed about economics: fascism. The exact means by which the end was carried out were very different in Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, Hitler's Germany, or Tojo's Japan, and the manner was occluded by a lot of violence caused by other things, but the fundamental dynamic is the same as here: government assumed responsibility for guaranteeing the flow of material goods by private means after public confidence in the market's ability to do this collapsed. The fascists did it to avert communism. We did it for less desperate reasons, but the idea is similar. (The German and Japanese Nazis were not fascists, strictly speaking, but the core of their economics, separate from their use of plunder, was similar. See my article on what the Nazis were really about.)
3 See my review of BoBos in Paradise. The Republican share of the rich vote is declining.
4 The political class loves corporatism because it enables them to establish themselves in stable, profitable brokerage-relationships in which they manage the exchange of favors between government and the public in exchange for political support. This is a much easier way to stay in office than focusing their efforts on contentious issues and the public's fickle opinions about them.
5 This responsibility devolved in practice onto the Morgan Bank on Wall Street, which organized ad-hoc groups of banks to stabilize markets and enforce standards when needed. See the fascinating account in Ron Chernow's The House of Morgan.
6 The recently faddish book Empire is an attempt to understand global corporatism from a neo-Marxist point of view. Although rich in hit-or-miss insights, its Marxist assumptions prevent it from getting it right. Marxists have been observing the emergence of corporatism, and desperately trying to update Marxism to accommodate it, for a long time now, the most philosophically interesting attempt being that of Jürgen Habermas in Legitimation Crisis. Such attempts can only be accurate insofar as they pass out of Marxism entirely.

26 posted on 06/15/2004 10:52:45 AM PDT by Remember_Salamis (Freedom is Not Free)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 25 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

Read Tonight BUMP!

27 posted on 06/15/2004 12:26:24 PM PDT by Pagey ((Hillary Rotten is a Smug and Holier- than- Thou- Socialist))
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: SedVictaCatoni
Ask yourself if you've ever heard of an angioplasty, or an ultrasound examination, or a CAT scan.

Yup, heard of them. I've also heard of nutritional ways to prevent getting in that way in the first place. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I haven't been in a doctor in years and have no plans to go, unless I'm injured. They only create as many problems as they cure. Most medical doctors have a completely closed mind about using any nutritional supplements--they only know about using their prescription pad.

28 posted on 06/15/2004 3:06:29 PM PDT by Conservativegreatgrandma
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 20 | View Replies]

To: *Socialized Medicine


29 posted on 06/15/2004 4:12:50 PM PDT by Libertarianize the GOP (Ideas have consequences)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 28 | View Replies]

To: Remember_Salamis

marking post 26

30 posted on 06/15/2004 5:09:18 PM PDT by djreece
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 26 | View Replies]


31 posted on 06/15/2004 7:15:55 PM PDT by jla (
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson