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Obama Work Done

The misallocation of resources precipitated by regulation is sometimes so thorough that proponents are apt to describe it as a feature, and not a bug! Apparently, that is how some think of new business startups and venture capital funding stimulated by Obamacare. Warren Meyer describes the situation in his post, “Worst Argument For Regulation Ever“. Providers confronting a thicket of new regulations, including a mandate for a massive reconfiguration of medical records, necessarily requires services that were heretofore unnecessary. As Meyer says:

All this investment and activity is going into trying to get back to even from productivity losses imposed by the government, or is being spent addressing government mandates for new services that the market did not want or value. This is a diversion of resources from new value-creation to fixing things, and as such is just the broken windows fallacy re-written in a new form.

The fallacy to which Meyer refers has a deep tradition in economic thinking, with a lineage tracing to Frederick Bastiat. A simple telling is that a broken window leads to more work for the glazier, more spending, and an apparent lift in income. Of course, someone must pay, and the broken window itself represents a loss of physical capital. But there are other consequences, since the glazier receives a payment that could have, and would have, purchased other goods and services that would have been preferred to window repairs. There are many broken windows in the case of Obamacare, including direct hits to providers, medical device manufacturers, and many of the previously insured. It was not enough for proponents to simply extend coverage to the uninsured. That simpler approach would have created plenty of challenges. But instead, Obamacare became a legal and regulatory behemoth in the hope that it would transform the health care industry… into what?

Noble intentions frequently motivate destructive actions out of sheer economic ignorance. That encompasses almost every effort to use government as an active manager of economic or social affairs. That’s the cogent message from Sheldon Richman in “The Economic Way of Thinking About Health Care“. Richman agrees that “health insurance for all” is an outcome to be hoped for, but he derides the notion that activist government can achieve it effectively. First,  the redistributive element in many government intrusions is a questionable economic strategy:

When government provides health insurance through subsidies or Medicare or Medicaid, it presides over the disposal of the fruits of other people’s labor. Government personnel decide who gets what, even though they had no hand in producing the resources they “redistribute.” In other words, they traffic in pilfered property. Hence H.L. Mencken’s immortal insight: ‘Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.’

The central planners decide who gets what in ways that are more destructive than simple redistribution. By way of demonstrating this phenomenon, Richman goes on to discuss the health insurance third-party payment system encouraged by government policy. Employer-paid coverage started as an unintended consequence of WW II wage controls. It also has tax-favored status as a popular fringe benefit. Unfortunately, this led to the bastardization of the concept of insurance itself:

That [tax-favored status] gives employer-provided insurance an appeal it would never have in a free society, where taxation would not distort decision-making. Moreover, the system creates an incentive to extend “insurance” to include noninsurable events simply to take advantage of the tax preference for noncash compensation. Today pseudo-insurance covers screening services and contraception, which of course are elective. (This does not mean they are trivial, only that they are chosen and are not happenings.)

Excess demand, owing to a marginal cost of routine care and elective services to the consumer that appears to be zero, sets off a series of unintended consequences:

… the real prices of medical inputs to rise … the price of insurance goes up; the government’s health care budget rises, requiring higher taxes now or later (because of the debt); and resources and labor flow into the stimulated health care industry and away from other valued purposes, raising the prices of other goods and services. Higher insurance premiums in turn prompt demand for more government subsidies, higher taxes, and more debt.

May that circle be broken. Richman mentions several steps at the link to promote more competitive, comprehensive and affordable health care.