A recipe for cynicism

Posted: Nov 29, 2006 12:01 AM
A recipe for cynicism

Full-time political junkies are often criticized for their cynicism. We're too blasé, too dismissive of idealism, ideas, hope and plain old do-goodery. There's merit to this complaint, and I would have more sympathy for it if Washington were not a cesspool of intellectual reprobates and rent-seeking whorishness. There's a reason the golden spirit of the high school overachiever ("and if we all work together, we can make this the best yearbook ever!") turns to dross in this fetid swamp of institutionalized asininity.

Take, for a timely example, Medicare Part D, a.k.a. the prescription drug benefit. If Washington is a sausage factory, then this is surely the most jumbo of wieners. Here's how it works: Various private insurance firms are invited to offer competing drug-insurance plans to everyone eligible for Medicare. Everyone is entitled to the basic program, but they can choose others if they want, on the assumption that private competition will drive prices down and that people will pick plans better suited to their specific needs. It sounds good, though in the process the government created a vast new universal old-age entitlement at a time when entitlements are greasing the skids toward a fiscal train wreck.

Recall that President Bush pushed for a prescription drug benefit as a way to beat Democrats at their own game of "Socialize that Medicine!" ("I'll take long lines for $1,000, Alex.") The Republican House, that famed bastion of fiscal rectitude, had for the most part already endorsed such a plan even before Bush proposed it, though the congressional GOP complains that Bush's "big government" siren song led them astray. But when Bush sent his proposal to Congress, it was a humble affair, aimed primarily at the needy. It was the GOP Congress that removed the free-market gristle from the bill and poured in pure pork fat, so as to ensure a smoother texture of pure entitlement.

Meanwhile, Democrats, furious that the Republicans had stolen their issue, rejected the whole Medicare plan on the grounds that it was an expensive "giveaway" to Big Pharma and insurance companies. Democrats, it seems, prefer even more expensive giveaways to the voters. For example, Sen. Dick Durbin's alternative plan, proposed shortly after Medicare Part D was passed (and still officially under consideration by the Democrats), never contemplated that market forces could lead to anything good. So he insisted that consumers must - must! - pay $35 a month in premiums. It turned out that competition has made $35 expensive by comparison - one plan costs a mere $6 per month, and the average is $32. Dick Durbin: granny gouger!

Now that the Democrats have taken over Congress, they are promising to "fix" Medicare Part D by making it more government-run, more generous to better-off recipients, and much less profitable for those evil disease-curing drug companies. The hitch is that the current, supposedly disastrous plan costs much less than expected and seniors are overwhelmingly happy with it. Shocking, isn't it? People like to get expensive stuff cheaper!

Oh, and before I get grief about minimizing such a vital issue, let's keep in mind that the greatest generation has a lot going for it, but a healthy aversion to statism isn't one of them. In 2000, when the prescription-drug crisis was reaching a crescendo - Al Gore seemed to find old ladies who had to choose between pills and food everywhere he went - senior citizens were nonetheless the most insured Americans. All of them were entitled to Medicare, most had other insurance, and four out of five of them already had prescription drug coverage by a third-party provider. Yes, some poor seniors needed help, but as a group, old people spent more of their money on entertainment (5.3 percent) than they did on drugs (3.2 percent). And yet the federal government refused to create a new entitlement to cheap "Matlock" DVDs.

The subtlety of mind behind the Democratic push to have the government "negotiate" - i.e. dictate - drug prices can be summarized in a statement by Robert M. Hayes, president of something called the Medicare Rights Center: "It only makes sense that if the industries do less well, the taxpayers and the consumers will do better."

By all means then, let us burn these industries down and salt the earth where they stood, for then we will live in consumer nirvana!

Hayes was talking to the Washington Post, which, having covered the "devastating" effects of Bush's plan before the midterm elections, has now suddenly discovered the plan works pretty well after all. "Success of Drug Plan Challenges Democrats," blared the headline.

And people wonder why we're so cynical.