Krugman on Rethuglicans and Medicare / Free Market


Two of my favorite columnists. They have been right time after time. Krugman is a Nobel laureate economist.

Republicans and Medicare

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By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: February 11, 2010

“Don’t cut Medicare. The reform bills passed by the House and Senate cut Medicare by approximately $500 billion. This is wrong.” So declared Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, in a recent op-ed article written with John Goodman, the president of the National Center for Policy Analysis.

And irony died.

Now, Mr. Gingrich was just repeating the current party line. Furious denunciations of any effort to seek cost savings in Medicare — death panels! — have been central to Republican efforts to demonize health reform. What’s amazing, however, is that they’re getting away with it.

Why is this amazing? It’s not just the fact that Republicans are now posing as staunch defenders of a program they have hated ever since the days when Ronald Reagan warned that Medicare would destroy America’s freedom. Nor is it even the fact that, as House speaker, Mr. Gingrich personally tried to ram through deep cuts in Medicare — and, in 1995, went so far as to shut down the federal government in an attempt to bully Bill Clinton into accepting those cuts.

After all, you could explain this about-face by supposing that Republicans have had a change of heart, that they have finally realized just how much good Medicare does. And if you believe that, I’ve got some mortgage-backed securities you might want to buy.

No, what’s truly mind-boggling is this: Even as Republicans denounce modest proposals to rein in Medicare’s rising costs, they are, themselves, seeking to dismantle the whole program. And the process of dismantling would begin with spending cuts of about $650 billion over the next decade. Math is hard, but I do believe that’s more than the roughly $400 billion (not $500 billion) in Medicare savings projected for the Democratic health bills.

What I’m talking about here is the “Roadmap for America’s Future,” the budget plan recently released by Representative Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican member of the House Budget Committee. Other leading Republicans have been bobbing and weaving on the official status of this proposal, but it’s pretty clear that Mr. Ryan’s vision does, in fact, represent what the G.O.P. would try to do if it returns to power.

The broad picture that emerges from the “roadmap” is of an economic agenda that hasn’t changed one iota in response to the economic failures of the Bush years. In particular, Mr. Ryan offers a plan for Social Security privatization that is basically identical to the Bush proposals of five years ago.

But what’s really worth noting, given the way the G.O.P. has campaigned against health care reform, is what Mr. Ryan proposes doing with and to Medicare.

In the Ryan proposal, nobody currently under the age of 55 would be covered by Medicare as it now exists. Instead, people would receive vouchers and be told to buy their own insurance. And even this new, privatized version of Medicare would erode over time because the value of these vouchers would almost surely lag ever further behind the actual cost of health insurance. By the time Americans now in their 20s or 30s reached the age of eligibility, there wouldn’t be much of a Medicare program left.

But what about those who already are covered by Medicare, or will enter the program over the next decade? You’re safe, says the roadmap; you’ll still be eligible for traditional Medicare. Except, that is, for the fact that the plan “strengthens the current program with changes such as income-relating drug benefit premiums to ensure long-term sustainability.”

If this sounds like deliberately confusing gobbledygook, that’s because it is. Fortunately, the Congressional Budget Office, which has done an evaluation of the roadmap, offers a translation: “Some higher-income enrollees would pay higher premiums, and some program payments would be reduced.” In short, there would be Medicare cuts.

And it’s possible to back out the size of those cuts from the budget office analysis, which compares the Ryan proposal with a “baseline” representing current policy. As I’ve already said, the total over the next decade comes to about $650 billion — substantially bigger than the Medicare savings in the Democratic bills.

The bottom line, then, is that the crusade against health reform has relied, crucially, on utter hypocrisy: Republicans who hate Medicare, tried to slash Medicare in the past, and still aim to dismantle the program over time, have been scoring political points by denouncing proposals for modest cost savings — savings that are substantially smaller than the spending cuts buried in their own proposals.

And if Democrats don’t get their act together and push the almost-completed reform across the goal line, this breathtaking act of staggering hypocrisy will succeed.

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Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

One Free Market System for Wall Street, Another Free Market System for Main Street

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Washington is paralyzed by snow and partisanship. Nothing is getting done – even as the Great Recession pulls more Americans into its maw.

In the midst of this paralysis, the President was asked about the giant pay packages of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co. ($17 mullion for 2009) and Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs ($9 million). “First of all, I know both those guys,” Obama said. “They’re very savvy businessmen. And I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That’s part of the free market system.”

Free market system? As I remember it, American taxpayers forked out hundreds of billions to keep JPMorgan, Goldman, and other big Wall Street banks afloat through most of 2009. Had we not done so, Dimon, Blankfein, and most other top executives on Wall Street would not have earned a dime last year. In fact, some would be out on the street, reather than sitting pretty on the Street.

The free market system has been unleashed instead on average Americans. According to real-estate data firm First American CoreLogic, about one-fourth of American households with a mortgage are under water – owing more on their homes than their homes are worth. Mortgage-bond trader Amherst Securities estimates that 7.1 million of the 7.9 households now behind on their mortgage payments will lose their homes to foreclosure if nothing is done to modify their loans. Already cities and towns are littered with foreclosure sales, pulling down the values of all homes in the area.

Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and most of the rest of Wall Street don’t worry about what’s happening to homes on Main Street because their savings are invested in stocks and bonds. But most middle-class Americans do worry because most (if not all) of their savings are in their homes. As home values continue to slip, average Americans’ one big asset is shrinking.

The best way to help reverse this downward slide would be to let bankruptcy judges restructure shaky home mortgages, reducing what borrowers owe. The problem is, the big banks hate this. If mortgages could be restructured this way, the banks would take big hits. They’d be forced to cut the amounts owed by borrowers. They figure they do better by squeezing as much as they can out of distressed homeowners, then collecting as much as they can on foreclosed properties.

So, not surprisingly, the big banks have been mounting a major lobbying campaign to block legislation that would allow homeowners to use bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy has been part of the “free market system” for hundreds of years, but its details are determined through politics – the same politics that arranged the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. In fact, you might say that during 2009, Wall Street went through its own kind of bankruptcy restructuring, with the generous aid of American taxpayers. JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, along with their top executives, traders, and major investors, have benefited handsomely.

Now, a quarter of American homeowners need help restructuring their loans, but Wall Street is blocking the way.

Rather than defending the outsized paychecks of Dimon, Blankfein, and the rest of Wall Street as part of the free market system, the President needs to demand that Wall Street help homeowners on Main Street. The Obama White House should have made this a condition of getting the giant bailouts in the first place. The least it can do now is to is to make the free market system work for everyone.

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