The Huffington Post has a video (sorry, won’t embed) up from President Obama’s health-care townhall in Colorado during which poli-sci (and marketing!) major from Boulder Zach Lahn asks the president how private insurance companies are supposed to compete with the inherent advantages in a public plan. It made the news because he laughingly challenges Obama to an “Oxford-style” debate, but I found his opening assumption to be the most interesting part. He starts out by saying, “We all know the best way to reduce price is to increase competition.” The president doesn’t challenge this assumption that comes directly from chapter one of any ECON100 textbook, but I will. The reason a solid public option would undercut private competition is because it can provide better care at a lower price. The anti-competitive advantages that worry Lahn and so many conservatives are the same things that make it cheaper. No matter how competitive the market gets it will not be able to undercut a public option, if it could then they’d have nothing to worry about. So what on Earth is he really saying? Lahn and other market-devotees can’t see the internal contradictions in what they’re saying, if the market is better, then it has nothing to worry about from the government. If it doesn’t work better, then we should go with the plan that does.
The problem is that those on the left can’t make this argument without following it to its logical conclusion. That logical conclusion is a single-payer system. Since it’s been determined that a single-payer system is politically unfeasible right now, we’re not allowed to make the real argument. President Obama has to pretend this punk is making a sophisticated argument instead of blabbering incoherent generalities from an introduction class.
Markets are tools, there’s no such thing as a right to a “free” market. I would much prefer a health-care system that adequately covers all Americans at the lowest cost than one that preserves a private market out of ideological devotion. Instead we have a debate in which one side acknowledges that private options cost more and want to know what the government is going to do to preserve a more expensive system.
Here I’ll cop to what conservatives have been accusing those of us on the left of the whole time. The public option is the first big step on a path to single-payer. If the public option is done anywhere near correctly, the private system will collapse. This is a good thing, I’m not sorry. For the first time in a long time we have the impetus to reform our health-care system in a fundamental way and I’m convinced that whatever comes out of these negotiations will set the path for health care in America for the next few decades at least. A compromise without a strong public option further entrenches a private system that is, in really basic ways, a bad idea. Even the conservatives know that, that’s why they’re fighting so hard. I understand that health care is an incredibly complicated policy area and the president’s frustration with the focus of the debate (death panels! socialism! Nazis!) makes sense. I’m still not sorry. Insurance reform isn’t good enough, we need health-care reform.

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