Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “A Single-Payer System Won’t Make Health Care Cheap” — Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View
A single-payer health care system is one of the premiere goals of some on the American left. But Megan McArdle, a conservative-ish libertarian who writes regularly for Bloomberg View, laid out an extensive and chart-heavy argument this week that one of the left’s key talking-points for single-payer — that it would do a better job of controlling growing health care costs — is chimerical.
The key is the difference between the cost level on the one hand and the rate of cost growth on the other. “We’re a nation that used to have a cost-growth problem, in the 1970s and 1980s,” McArdle wrote. Since then, the rate of cost increase in the US has not diverged much at all from the rates in other advanced western countries that already have single-payer systems. America’s health care cost problem is now one of unusually high levels, not unusually high growth:
What’s the problem? I hear you cry. Well, the problem is what you don’t see in that picture.
What you don’t see is any government cutting health spending by any significant amount. Oh, Germany managed, once. Canada kept it level for a while. But no one has cut by anything like 35 to 40 percent — which is what we’d need to get our spending in line with Canada’s.
I’ve only shown a few countries, to keep the graph easy to read, but these examples aren’t cherry picked, except that they’re big rich countries like us. When you dig into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data, you don’t see any government, anywhere, making sustained cutbacks in the health-care system, except for situations such as in Greece, which cut back substantially in the middle of an economic meltdown and a sustained run on its government debt. Absent the impetus that a whopping financial crisis provides, at best, you see them hold down cost growth.
Obviously, there are other substantive reasons the left can put forward for single-payer: increased access to care, more justly distributed access, etc. But McArdle’s point is one that can help advocates of universal health care think through how health care markets actually work, where the problems actually lie, and what policies are the best targeted to dealing with them.
2. “Donald Sterling and the Inequality Debate” — Ross Douthat, The New York Times
We’ve noted Ross Douthat in this space before, and it’s easy to see why: as a young, intelligent, civil but hard-charging-on-the-social-issues conservative Catholic, Douthat is more or less perfectly place to needle the liberal upper class readers of the New York Times. This week, he wrote an unusually dense post that draws on Donald Sterling’s racist behavior as a slumlord, the newfound Democratic push for a minimum wage hike, and the brewing blogosphere movement to lower the cost of urban housing through deregulation. The argument is that liberal enthusiasm for the minimum wage increase, when seen alongside the relative lack of drive behind any housing regulation reform — which would inconvenience those same upper class urban liberals — reveals a woefully suboptimal policy strategy for helping the working class:
By turning [low-wage employers] into your chief villains, you’ve reaped some benefits but also risked some steep costs, because while low-wage employers may be part of the problem (at least as the left currently defines it) they are also necessarily part of the solution. Whereas the innocent-seeming petits rentiers, guarding their views and watching their property values rise, are actually the ones who are more unambiguously free-riding off public policy: Not only off the zoning regulations that protect their real estate investments, but also off the entire range of tax subsidies that, as currently designed, double as welfare programs for the mass upper class.
Reasonable people can disagree, but on the merits, if you care about working class opportunity and mobility, there is at least some public policy justification for policies (like a minimum wage set at $7.25 rather than $10.10) that try to maximize low-wage hiring even if it means some of those workers will rely on safety-net programs. Where the policies that protect and enrich the petits rentiers class are concerned, however — and seriously enrich literal rent-collectors like Donald Sterling — no such opportunity-enhancing justification exists. So when the urban left organizes around an agenda that targets low-wage employers and leaves the petits rentiers alone, it’s both embracing policies whose costs might exceed their benefits and leaving more deserving targets untouched.
To understand the “petits rentiers” point, this post should be read in conjunction with Douthat’s piece last week, which turned to Thomas Piketty’s new book to suggest the class battle in America is not so much between the 99 percent and the one percent, but between the 90 percent and the 10 percent — with a hefty portion of the Democrats’ base falling in that 10 percent.
It all gets at a good question about where the political center of gravity for American liberalism and its voter base actually lies — and what blind-spots the interests of those voters can in turn create, as the movement and the party pursue policies aimed at the ostensible goal of helping poorer and working class Americans.
3. “How Net Neutrality Hurts the Poor” — Eli Dourado, The Ümlaut
“Net neutrality” is both a principle and a set of policies — centered amongst more tech-minded liberals and some libertarians — that would force internet service providers to treat all websites and transfers of information equally. If they can differentiate, and charge different rates for access to different areas of the internet, the fear is that free-speech would be squashed de facto as corporations gained more control over who can be exposed to what information.
However, Eli Dourado, a research fellow at the conservative Mercatus Center, sounded a cautionary note in The Ümlaut this week. While his point applies more to the developing world than to the US, he argues that allowing companies to differentiate like this gives them the necessary market impetus to bring internet services to the global poor:
In much of the world, the net is not neutral, thanks to companies like Facebook and Google. Facebook Zero is an initiative launched in 2010 to give customers of 50 carriers, mostly in the developing world, access to a lightweight version of Facebook on their WAP-enabled feature phones at no charge. Users can post, like, poke, and comment to their hearts’ content, but if they want to view photos or access non-Facebook sites, they incur the usual data charge. The model has been so successful at growing Facebook adoption in Africa that Google followed suit with a competing offering, Google Free Zone in 2012. Lest anyone think that this is a cruel ploy by evil, for-profit corporations to trap the poor inside their walled gardens, the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation also copied Facebook’s idea with Wikipedia Zero, to great effect.
You may think that walled-garden access to Facebook or Google is inferior to neutral Internet access — and you’d be right. But if the neutralistas got their way, people in developing countries wouldn’t have better Internet access; many of them would have nothing. Wikimedia notes that in Kenya, mobile service costs can exceed 25 percent of monthly income. “Additionally, nearly 1 in 5 have reported that they will forgo a usual expenditure (such as food) in order to reload phone credit.” Low-quality (free) Internet access, therefore, is part of the optimal stock of Internet access.
Dourado also argues that global net neutrality would prevent investment in poor countries’ information infrastructure.
The overall argument bears certain similarities to conservatives’ case in favor of Walmart: that the cheap prices are actually a boon to low-earners who otherwise wouldn’t have access to those goods. The response, of course, is that the cheap prices drive down those same earners’ wages, leaving them unable to afford anything else, and a self-reinforcing spiral ensues. Dourado’s argument sort of accepts the inevitability of low purchasing power for some segment of the population in the same way. So it’s worth asking exactly how much we want to rely on private companies and these sorts of market dynamics to provide information services and infrastructure in the first place .
That said, the simple brute logic of Dourado’s that low quality goods and services are part of the optimal stock of goods and services should be grappled with.