Thursday, May 21, 2020

COVID Pandemic Highlights Need for Reform of US Healthcare

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted longstanding weaknesses of the U.S. healthcare system. In a May 20 webinar sponsored by the Niskanen Center, I examined three key issues:

  • Where has our healthcare system failed?
  • What can be done to make it work better?
  • Is healthcare reform as we know it even relevant any more?
By "healthcare reform as we know it," I mean the kinds of reforms discussed endlessly during 2019 Democratic primary campaign and before that, during Republican efforts to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. I highlight three reform models:
I explain how each of these can at least partially address problems raised by the pandemic, including loss of employer-sponsored coverage by tens of millions of job-losers and inadequate provision for testing, treatment, and supported isolation. I also discuss some problems that existing reforms do not adequately address.

My slideshow from the webinar is available here. A link to the complete video, including comments by Jeff Flier and additional Q&A by participants, will be available soon. 


Friday, May 15, 2020

A Social Safety Net for the Pandemic and Beyond

America's social safety net has been severely strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the virus has affected people in all walks of life, the burden of illness and lost jobs has fallen most heavily on people in the lower half of the income distribution.

As the chart shows, those in the bottom half are the households whose financial condition is most fragile. They suffered the greatest economic harm in the 2008 financial crisis. Unlike their wealthier peers, they have not yet recovered, and they will experience even greater financial stress this time.

To cope with the economic effects of the pandemic, we need a social safety net that is fast, fair, and work-friendly. Federal efforts to provide income support in this crisis are commendable, but they have not reached everyone in timely fashion, and they have often been poorly targeted.

The safety net needs top-to-bottom reform. A reformed system would place more emphasis on cash assistance, with less in-kind and means-tested welfare. It would be "always on" in the sense that everyone would be automatically pre-enrolled for the minimum level of support needed in good times, so that aid could be quickly ramped up when a crisis strikes. It would provide adequate pay for essential workers and encourage others to return to work when the crisis has passed.

All of this and more was discussed in a webinar presented jointly by the Niskanen Center and the Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy at the University of San Diego on May 14, 2020. You can view a slideshow presented during the webinar at this link or watch a complete video of the webinar, including Q&A, here.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Ozzie Zehner is at it again: Green Illusions, and Planet of the Humans

Are solar, wind, and other alternatives the magic bullets that will solve the world’s environmental and energy problems? Take a closer look, wrote Ozzie Zehner in his 2012 book,  Green Illusions. He is still saying much the same thing, in a new movie, Planet of the Humans, despite the great strides renewables have made in the past eight years.

My Niskanen Center colleague Nader Sobhani has reviewed the movie, and finds it wanting. I'll let you read his movie review. Here is a repost my own 2012 review of the book:

Zehner not only argues that green energy has technological, environmental and economic limits, but also that without an appropriate policy context, some forms of alternative energy could do more harm than good.

The dirty secrets of clean energy

The first part of Zehner’s book—by far the best—is devoted to explaining why neither photovoltaic, nor wind, nor biomass, nor any of the other alternatives to fossil fuels will be able to deliver a future of abundant, cheap, clean energy. Chapter by chapter, he brings out the environmental and economic limitations of each technology. Among the highlights—

Sunday, May 3, 2020

COVID-Related Spending Must Not Become an Excuse for a Post-Crisis Fiscal Straitjacket

Writing for the Brookings Up Front blog, Stuart Butler and Timothy Higashi urge fiscal policymakers to look beyond the current crisis. Extraordinary short-term spending is justified, they agree, but, they urge that “we also need to put in place – ideally as part of ongoing stimulus measures – procedures that will help policymakers and the public to prepare for the less urgent but equally important task of managing the future fiscal and economic threats from today’s emergency actions.”

They are right that we need better long-term fiscal rules to avoid long-term budget chaos. Even more importantly, we need good rules to avoid premature austerity that could slow the recovery, as happened half-way through the rebound from the 2008 financial crisis. But just what should the rules look like?

Above all, in my view, any such rules must not become a fiscal straitjacket that would impair our prosperity for years to come. The once-popular notion of a balanced budget amendment is a classic example of what we do not need. A rule requiring annual budget balance would be profoundly procyclical. It would require cutting expenditures when tax revenues fell during a slump, and in boom times, it would put no real constraint on tax giveaways like the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

No one seems to be pushing a balanced budget amendment now, but some ideas that are floating around would not be much better. One example is the Enzi-Whitehouse plan (S.2765), which Butler and Higashi are a good deal warmer toward than I am. As I read it, the central pillar of the Enzi-Whitehouse plan is a hard cap on the debt-to-GDP ratio that could be overcome only by a supermajority. Unless the bill were very carefully crafted, it would become a de-facto balanced budget requirement as soon as the debt ceiling were reached, which it inevitably would be. If the current draft of the bill contains safeguards to keep that from happening, I can’t spot them in the text.