Sunday, August 23, 2009



This morning on Face the Nation, Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, chairman of the DNC, and medical doctor was making the case for the “public option” in whatever health care reform emerges from our current game of legislative chicken. He made his argument extremely poorly, displaying a knowledge of finance and accounting roughly equivalent to that of my eleven year old, who ceaselessly proclaims that he has no interest in, and certainly no intention to study, “that boring stuff daddy teaches.” Among other things, when decrying profits as “wasteful,” Dr. Dean confused the payout ratio with the retention ratio and assumed that both were calculated on total revenues, rather than net income. Now, I don’t expect most people, or even most of my readers, who are smarter than the average bear and are more attuned to financial matters than most, to understand that the retention ratio and the payout ratio are complements of one another and that they are calculated on net income. But most people, unlike Dr. Dean, do not pontificate on such things as if they actually had some remote idea of what such high falutin’ terms mean. But I digress. It wasn’t that Dr. Dean delivered what amounted to an execrable imitation of Norm Crosby when he attempted to argue that health care reform without a public option is not health care reform at all that inspired this post. The point of this post is what came next, which has, over the last few years, become a standard line of all those who believe that sufficient government intrusion in our lives, and shares of our earning power, are the sure path to nirvana. Dr. Dean stated (and I have to paraphrase here; I heard, rather than read, Dr. Dean’s words and so can’t quote them, but this is VERY close):

The Congressional Budget Office scores the House proposal at $600 billion. That comes out to $60 billion a year, less than we are spending (or perhaps he said “have spent;” it makes little difference to the larger point) in Iraq.

Why did that contention especially pique my interest? Because it is wrong? No. Factually, Dr. Dean is absolutely right. Whether the numbers work out that way (They never do when the other people’s money is at stake.) is another issue. But the Iraq war has been more costly than current projections for health care reform with a public option, and certainly more costly than the public option itself. What made Dr. Dean’s comment tickle my eardrums is the fact that over two years ago, when the Pontificator (the column, not the writer) was in its infancy, I put up the following post:



This morning, The Wall Street Journal, apparently exhausted from its ceaseless marathon of Bush cheerleading, took a break to report some actual news: A report to Congress has put the total cost of the Iraq war at $400 billion, so far.

This got me to thinking that critics of the Iraq war are ignoring one of the more enduring (albeit, compared to the truly stunning loss of life, utter destruction of a sovereign nation, and creation of a hotbed of terrorist activity that will plague us, and the entire world, perhaps for centuries, not the most salient) costs of the Iraq war. I am speaking of the fiscal costs of the war, but not “only” the $400 billion we have blown so far. I am speaking of the long run ramifications of this, to use a woefully inadequate word, counterproductive spending.

In the past, when someone, usually, but certainly not exclusively, a Democrat, proposed some asinine spending bill, those who still believed in fiscal prudence, usually, but certainly not exclusively, Republicans, could counter that, as desirable as the program might be (usually with a well deserved roll of the eyes), we simply could not afford it. Now, however, the proponent of the pointless program can counter “Well, if we could find $400 billion to spend on the Iraq war, we can find money for (Here insert the name of the program that will not only raid the treasury but have ghastly unintended consequences that will “require” yet another fiscal abomination to “solve.”).” Such an argument will become the Third Millennia equivalent of “If we can put a man on the moon, we can (Here insert whatever the speaker wishes the taxpayers to fund in order to fortify the spondulicks of his or her campaign contributors or some utopian goal that bears absolutely no relationship to putting a man on the moon.).”

One of the last arguments against runaway spending and kudzu-like growth of government has thus been destroyed by that self-proclaimed champion of “conservative” values, President Bush.

The Pontificator

Dr. Dean’s perfectly legitimate argument is just the latest case in which the above prediction came true.

As loyal readers know, health care is one of the few issues on which I am genuinely agnostic. Even the sub-issues involved leave my straddling the fence. (See my 8/13/09 post, “TAKE A DEEP BREATH” and my 7/1/09 post “SPEAKING OF INDEPENDENCE…”) For example, excluding people with preexisting conditions from coverage renders a large portion of the population uninsurable, but how can we expect legitimately profit seeking companies to cover people that they know will lose them money, EVEN IF everyone is forced into the pool? I know that runaway litigation is a major contributor to the surge in health care costs, but I also know that, without a healthy and vigorous tort system, more rigorous and intrusive regulation will be needed to protect patients from shoddy medical work, and rigorous and intrusive regulation is a commodity of which our country has plenty. I know our current health care INSURANCE system stinks, but the serious alternatives presented so far are not only philosophically repugnant to people who think like I do, they are also flawed from a practical standpoint; the government does not have a great track record at running much of anything, and that poor performance has its origins in irretractable human nature, not the ability or the intelligence of those charged with executing the designs of the governing class. So I’m not here to argue vigorously for or against anyone’s conceptions of health care reform.

However, I am here to argue that George Bush’s disastrous Iraq war, in addition to its massive immediate financial costs and, more tragically and saliently, costs in human life and to our standing in the world, and hence to the security Mr. Bush used as an excuse for this abominable war, has given the big spenders ammunition in arguing for any program. As I said above, you can hear, and have heard, the big government types: “If we can spend (insert ultimate dollar amount…now well over a trillion of your dollars) on Iraq, we can surely spend (a similar amount) on (name some inane program that serves mostly to reward some poltroonish pol and those who enable him or, in rare cases, some worthwhile program that we simply cannot afford and/or that the government has no business sponsoring and funding).

It is the Iraq war, among many other things, that gives George Bush his eternal place in the pantheon of pathetically parlous presidents, right alongside LBJ and Jimmy Carter. And for my conservative friends, no matter how bad Mr. Obama may get by, as he is doing now, simply continuing and perhaps intensifying Bush financial and foreign policies (and he has a long way to go before he reaches Bushian heights of disaster), he can NEVER be as bad as Mr. Bush, simply because without President Bush there would have been no President Obama, so Mr. Bush is doubly responsible for the disasters that have befallen, and should continue to befall, this country in the first two decades of the new millennium.

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