Monday, April 28, 2014

High Plains Moochers

APRIL 27, 2014

Paul Krugman

It is, in a way, too bad that Cliven Bundy — the rancher who became a right-wing hero after refusing to pay fees for grazing his animals on federal land, and bringing in armed men to support his defiance — has turned out to be a crude racist. Why? Because his ranting has given conservatives an easy out, a way to dissociate themselves from his actions without facing up to the terrible wrong turn their movement has taken.

For at the heart of the standoff was a perversion of the concept of freedom, which for too much of the right has come to mean the freedom of the wealthy to do whatever they want, without regard to the consequences for others.

Start with the narrow issue of land use. For historical reasons, the federal government owns a lot of land in the West; some of that land is open to ranching, mining and so on. Like any landowner, the Bureau of Land Management charges fees for the use of its property. The only difference from private ownership is that by all accounts thegovernment charges too little — that is, it doesn’t collect as much money as it could, and in many cases doesn’t even charge enough to cover the costs that these private activities impose. In effect, the government is using its ownership of land to subsidize ranchers and mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.

It’s true that some of the people profiting from implicit taxpayer subsidies manage, all the same, to convince themselves and others that they are rugged individualists. But they’re actually welfare queens of the purple sage.

And this in turn means that treating Mr. Bundy as some kind of libertarian hero is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. Suppose he had been grazing his cattle on land belonging to one of his neighbors, and had refused to pay for the privilege. That would clearly have been theft — and brandishing guns when someone tried to stop the theft would have turned it into armed robbery. The fact that in this case the public owns the land shouldn’t make any difference.

So what were people like Sean Hannity of Fox News, who went all in on Mr. Bundy’s behalf, thinking? Partly, no doubt, it was the general demonization of government — if someone looks as if he is defying Washington, he’s a hero, never mind the details. Partly, one suspects, it was also about race — not Mr. Bundy’s blatant racism, but the general notion that government takes money from hard-working Americans and gives it to Those People. White people who wear cowboy hats while profiting from government subsidies just don’t fit the stereotype.

Most of all, however — or at least that’s how it seems to me — the Bundy fiasco was a byproduct of the dumbing down that seems ever more central to the way America’s right operates.

American conservatism used to have room for fairly sophisticated views about the role of government. Its economic patron saint used to be Milton Friedman, who advocated aggressive money-printing, if necessary, to avoid depressions. It used to include environmentalists who took pollution seriously but advocated market-based solutions like cap-and-trade or emissions taxes rather than rigid rules.

The selfish self righteous ignorance of the far right where "it's all about me me and getting everything I can get regardless of anyone or...

But today’s conservative leaders were raised on Ayn Rand’s novels and Ronald Reagan’s speeches (as opposed to his actual governance, which was a lot more flexible than the legend). They insist that the rights of private property are absolute, and that government is always the problem, never the solution.

The trouble is that such beliefs are fundamentally indefensible in the modern world, which is rife with what economists call externalities — costs that private actions impose on others, but which people have no financial incentive to avoid. You might want, for example, to declare that what a farmer does on his own land is entirely his own business; but what if he uses pesticides that contaminate the water supply, or antibiotics that speed the evolution of drug-resistant microbes? You might want to declare that government intervention never helps; but who else can deal with such problems?

Well, one answer is denial — insistence that such problems aren’t real, that they’re invented by elitists who want to take away our freedom. And along with this anti-intellectualism goes a general dumbing-down, an exaltation of supposedly ordinary folks who don’t hold with this kind of stuff. Think of it as the right’s duck-dynastic moment.

You can see how Mr. Bundy, who came across as a straight-talking Marlboro Man, fit right into that mind-set. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a bit more straight-talking than expected.

I’d like to think that the whole Bundy affair will cause at least some of the people who backed him to engage in self-reflection, and ask how they ended up lending support, even briefly, to someone like that. But I don’t expect it to happen.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Health Care Nightmares

APRIL 10, 2014

Paul Krugman

When it comes to health reform, Republicans suffer from delusions of disaster. They know, just know, that the Affordable Care Act is doomed to utter failure, so failure is what they see, never mind the facts on the ground.

Thus, on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader,dismissed the push for pay equity as an attempt to “change the subject from the nightmare of Obamacare”; on the same day, the nonpartisan RAND Corporation released a study estimating “a net gain of 9.3 million in the number of American adults with health insurance coverage from September 2013 to mid-March 2014.” Some nightmare. And the overall gain, including children and those who signed up during the late-March enrollment surge, must be considerably larger.

But while Obamacare is looking like anything but a nightmare, there are indeed some nightmarish things happening on the health care front. For it turns out that there’s a startling ugliness of spirit abroad in modern America — and health reform has brought that ugliness out into the open.

Let’s start with the good news about reform, which keeps coming in. First, there was the amazing come-from-behind surge in enrollments. Then there were a series of surveys — from Gallup, the Urban Institute, and RAND — all suggesting large gains in coverage. Taken individually, any one of these indicators might be dismissed as an outlier, but taken together they paint an unmistakable picture of major progress.

But wait: What about all the people who lost their policies thanks to Obamacare? The answer is that this looks more than ever like a relatively small issue hyped by right-wing propaganda. RAND finds that fewer than a million people who previously had individual insurance became uninsured — and many of those transitions, one guesses, had nothing to do with Obamacare. It’s worth noting that, so far, not one of the supposed horror stories touted in Koch-backed anti-reform advertisements has stood up to scrutiny, suggesting that real horror stories are rare.

It will be months before we have a full picture, but it’s clear that the number of uninsured Americans has already dropped significantly — not least in Mr. McConnell’s home state. It appears that around 40 percent of Kentucky’s uninsured population has already gained coverage, and we can expect a lot more people to sign up next year.

Republicans clearly have no idea how to respond to these developments. They can’t offer any real alternative to Obamacare, because you can’t achieve the good stuff in the Affordable Care Act, like coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, without also including the stuff they hate, the requirement that everyone buy insurance and the subsidies that make that requirement possible. Their political strategy has been to talk vaguely about replacing reform while waiting for its inevitable collapse. And what if reform doesn’t collapse? They have no idea what to do.

At the state level, however, Republican governors and legislators are still in a position to block the act’s expansion of Medicaid, denying health care to millions of vulnerable Americans. And they have seized that opportunity with gusto: Most Republican-controlled states, totaling half the nation, have rejected Medicaid expansion. And it shows. The number of uninsured Americans is dropping much faster in states accepting Medicaid expansion than in states rejecting it.

What’s amazing about this wave of rejection is that it appears to be motivated by pure spite. The federal government is prepared to pay for Medicaid expansion, so it would cost the states nothing, and would, in fact, provide an inflow of dollars. The health economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the principal architects of health reform — and normally a very mild-mannered guy — recently summed it up: The Medicaid-rejection states “are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.” Indeed.


And while supposed Obamacare horror stories keep on turning out to be false, it’s already quite easy to find examples of people who diedbecause their states refused to expand Medicaid. According to one recent study, the death toll from Medicaid rejection is likely to run between 7,000 and 17,000 Americans each year.

But nobody expects to see a lot of prominent Republicans declaring that rejecting Medicaid expansion is wrong, that caring for Americans in need is more important than scoring political points against the Obama administration. As I said, there’s an extraordinary ugliness of spirit abroad in today’s America, which health reform has brought out into the open.

And that revelation, not reform itself — which is going pretty well — is the real Obamacare nightmare.