Monday, February 28, 2011


In what is sure to be supreme irony. My op-ed on changing the nature of the debate was cut from about 750 to around 500 words. Given that one of my main points was that we do not take time to make the complicated arguments, I think I've proved my point. As for how we change the nature of the debate? I'm at a loss. I guess we as consumers of information have to change our demands. Here is the full op-ed with links.
Changing the Nature of the Debate. 2/21/11 Taggert J. Brooks, PhD

I have to admit the last week has been quite an emotional roller coaster for me. As a state employee who will be receiving a large pay cut, my morale is low. As someone who is teaching health economics I can hardly think of a more salient example of the struggles we face with rising health care expenditures. But as an economist I’ve been infuriated by the level of debate. I’ve spent too much of my time trying to raise the level of discussion on both sides in the comments section of this newspaper, or the Facebook walls of my friends and former students.

We need to change the nature of the debate.

In December Congress moved to extend unemployment insurance benefits to another group of recipients to an unprecedented 99 months . Republicans claimed that this would only delay recipient’s job search and inflate an already high unemployment rate . Republicans were right. Unemployment Insurance (UI) artificially reduces the incentives to find work by increasing the cost of taking up employment. Larry Katz finds a one week extension typically increases unemployment duration by 0.2 weeks. This is supported by ample economic research. But Democrats cried foul. They argued that failure to extend benefits would throw thousands off UI resulting in painful decreases in their family’s income, and it would cause the ensuing macroeconomic consequences associated with falling consumption . Democrats were right too, and there is plenty of research to back their argument. Why the seemingly contradictory conclusions? The reason is unemployment insurance is a blunt policy tool.

But the debate shouldn’t be about extending or not extending UI. The debate should be about how we sharpen the blunt tool, about how we get the good things out of UI without creating the bad things? Sadly we seem far from that type of discussion. Maybe because it would never fit on a bumper sticker.

Wisconsin’s current troubles provide us with other examples of how we need to change the nature of the debate. Unions are complicated entities – and much like UI - they do both good things and bad things. Looking specifically at the K-12 teachers union, since they appear to be Governor Walker’s primary target, we hear about their resistance to change and their protection of bad teachers. Unions are blunt instruments. They are designed to protect worker’s rights, but in so doing they often protect bad behavior and bad workers. The debate should be about how we reduce the bad things that they do, and improve the good things they do. How do we sharpen the tool? The Governor’s actions have circumvented that conversation.

One of Governor Walker’s examples for wanting to eliminate collective bargaining comes from the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association (MTEA). He decries the union’s attempt to reinstate Viagra coverage with their health insurance . The implication is that the union is defending a bunch recreational drug users. I’m quite sure there is some of that, but I’m also sure there are prostate cancer survivors in that same mix. I think we can all agree their desire to have intimate relations with their spouses is a legitimate health issue. But we can’t blame the union entirely for the bluntness of their defense, we should also blame the insurance company. Why can’t they cover the medicine for the cases we all think are legitimate, and not cover it for the cases some of us might find frivolous? We need to sharpen our tools, the debate should be about how we do that, not about avoiding the conversation. We should not abandon our teachers nor our prostate cancer survivors.

Our current health care system guarantees this will continue to be a problem. But we need to end the winner take all mentality. There is a third way. Honest discussion, debate and a willingness to wrestle with complicated ideas, that can’t be reduced to sound bites. It will take leadership on both sides. But more than that, politicians will have to become educators, because the problem really is us. We want our cake and want to eat it too. Edmund Burke had it right. Politicians should not be mere puppets for the majority of their constituents; they should be advocates for the public trust. Otherwise we are doomed to painfully oscillate between extreme world views.

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