Years ago, when I meekly asked my parents to raise my weekly allowance from $1.50 to $2, my father began an impassioned speech on how our household was "holding the line" on expenses, citing the encroaching Christmas season and a planned vacation that following summer to Cape Cod.At that point, I wasn't sophisticated enough to differentiate between revenue and overhead, but I was reasonably sure I wasn't going to get the pay hike.
Last month I sort of felt that way again during the State of the Union address, when the president outlined a plan to make health care more affordable for the roughly 47 million Americans who don't have it. I've never been confused with Milton Friedman, but in my limited grasp of economics I thought that you could only accomplish that in a select number of ways, the most obvious being that someone, somewhere would have to pay more for the same services or pay something for services they're currently not getting.
Yet the president referred to his plan as a "revenue neutral" reform that would provide a "level playing field" (what's a State of the Union without a few shopworn clichés?) between those who currently have employer-sponsored or heavily subsidized policies and those who can't afford any type of health insurance.
A commendable strategy, to be sure, but one with more holes in it than the boat from Gilligan's Island.
Under the Bush plan, people who currently buy insurance or sign up for basic coverage from their employers would get a tax break. Basically the proposal would work like this: Employee insurance benefits would show up on their W-2 statements as income. And as a result, the plans themselves would be liable for federal taxes. Employees would receive a deduction of $7,500 per individual and $15,000 for a family of four. Therefore, most people would get a tax break and those who were uninsured would get help in covering their out-of-pocket costs. But a tax would be levied on roughly 20 percent of employees under premium plans if they "didn't change their behavior at all," a euphemism meaning they didn't opt for a lower-cost coverage plan.
But wait, there's more: The plan also includes subsidies or federal grants to states to help cover those who can't afford insurance. And if experience has taught us anything about "block" funding, it's that states spend money they haven't raised themselves like a sailors on shore leave.
Obviously, the plan will run headlong into a number of roadblocks - not the least of which is the 20 percent of the working population who will have the privilege of paying higher taxes to continue receiving better benefits.
And the Democrats have made no secret of their ongoing love affair with a government-mandated health care system, so few expect the Bush plan to get any serious traction.
So whatever semantics the president chooses to employ in describing his proposal for health care reform, I can pretty much write the ending.
George, I've been there.
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