Great expectations

Barack Obama won a dramatic, unexpected political victory on health care this week. Even in partisan terms it might be wise to withhold congratulations until November 2. But here's the question I want to ask: When's the last time a major government program did what it was supposed to do, or cost what it was supposed to cost?

I concede that it's a political triumph. The president got a bill passed that looked doomed and emerged looking more like a leader. And I won't quibble that his vaunted non-partisanship came down to a House of Representatives vote in which not one single Republican supported his health-care bill. We have political parties because people disagree on fundamental issues, and it is as undesirable for politicians to deprive voters of important choices by ganging up on us as it is unlikely, given their propensity to squabble. But it doesn't much matter.

What matters is the policy question: Why do we think this bill will work the way it's meant to? I am constantly amazed at the way the American and Canadian chattering classes plow ahead with one government initiative after another on the assumption that it will, if enacted, perform as advertised. Why do we think that?

Here the tendency of journalists to put their liberal partisanship ahead of their professional duties is a significant obstacle to clarity.

"Obama signs historic health-care legislation," they gush. "Barack Obama was able to make history ... a milestone that will change the face and character of this country ... assures him of a legacy".

This rush to judgment is unseemly and unhelpful.

In a revealing lead sentence in Tuesday's Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson wrote "Canadians love to disparage America's privately funded health care, just as conservative Americans love to slag Canada's public system." Shoving aside his casual assumption that all Canadians love to disparage America's system, while only conservative Americans slag ours, what can he mean by saying the United States has a "privately funded" system? Is it really a secret that more than half of every health care dollar in the United States comes from one level of government or another, and only 12 cents from patients?

His article continued: "But beyond all the name calling, this much is true: Congress dedicated the better part of a year in search of a way to 'bend the curve' on health-care costs. In Canada, however, the curve keeps climbing, because politicians would rather not talk about it."

Once again his assumption is that because Americans talked about containing costs, and passed a bill that promises to do so, the result is assured or at least likely. I beg to differ.

While star-struck journalists were hailing this bill as on a par with civil rights, social security or Medicare, I was researching the latter and found this nasty tidbit: When created in 1965, Medicare was projected to cost $3.2 billion dollars a year. But it cost $4.2 billion its first year, $7.1 billion by 1970 and $18 billion by 1975 with its sibling Medicaid costing as much again. By 1989 the two combined were costing $76 billion and by 2004, $606 billion. So much for cost projections.

As for effectiveness, it was precisely the catastrophic failure of these brilliant landmarks that made Obamacare so urgent in the minds of liberal politicians and reporters. And this is no fluke; as far as I can see big government social programs invariably cost way more than they were meant to and deliver way less.

Can you name one, here or in the United States, with which progressives are now happy? Can you tell me one significant social problem that was solved by a government program? And yet rhetorical outrage at the inadequacy of existing measures is invariably accompanied by unguarded praise for the next big thing. Why? Do we never learn?

If Obamacare should prove as expensive and ineffective as its predecessors I would argue that it's a bad thing even if it makes the president look good and lets his party hold both Houses of Congress in November. It's also distinctly possible that the whole thing is unconstitutional; at least 14 states have filed suit against the bill on the grounds that no one can locate the passage in the United States Constitution that authorizes the federal government to require individuals to purchase health insurance.

If American courts turn out not to share the journalistic contempt for "Tea Party" activists as gun-slinging bigots, it will serve only to revitalize the limited government movement. And while such an outcome would constitute a historic development and a legacy for Barack Obama, it wouldn't quite fit the narrative on this week's front pages.

Let's not summon the stone masons to the Washington Mall just yet.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson