David R. Henderson  

Victory at Oberlin

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After my debate on Obamacare at Oberlin College on Wednesday, dozens of cheering students came running to the stage, lifted me up and carried me away because of my total victory over my opponent, Ted Marmor.

OK, well that's not exactly the way it happened, but I do title this post "Victory at Oberlin" because of what did happen. The debate went very well.

How do you judge that at a place like Oberlin, where the dominant ideology is left-wing? One low bar is that you don't get booed. Unlike Karl Rove (he visited in 2010), I didn't. Another bar that's higher while still being realistic is that you sense that people are thinking about what you say. Judging that is subjective, of course, but one way to tell is to check people's body language and faces. Another way is by the tone of the questions: I would say that most of the questions in Q&A were critical in some degree of my opposition to Obamacare but the tone of most of the questions and of all of the questions asked by students was neutral to friendly. Another way to judge is by how much actual information I got across that seemed to be understood.

So judging by all those criteria, my time at Oberlin was successful. This is not a full trip report, but I do want to share one story.

The moderator was philosophy professor Tim Hall, whom I had never met or corresponded with but whom I hope to see again because he is an all-around good guy. He gave us some questions in advance. I received mine 6 days late because he had the wrong e-mail address for me, but I still had time to prepare answers. He did a great job of moderating and keeping us within our 3-minute time limits that I had asked for and that Ted, he, and I had agreed on in advance.

One of the questions he asked was this:

The important provisions of the Affordable Care Act include an individual mandate in health insurance, an employer mandate, price controls for insurance premiums, a Medicaid expansion, the establishment of insurance "exchanges", and mandatory acceptance of private insurance customers. The Act is aimed at making health care affordable for all, or nearly all, Americans; reducing overall health care costs, and improving medical outcomes. Speaking first about affordability to individuals and mandatory acceptance, is it realistic to suppose that health insurance premiums will be affordable given the requirement for mandatory acceptance of customers? If not, what improvements or changes would you suggest?

I answered that if I had my druthers, I would repeal the Affordable Care Act. I was about to go on to give my second part of the answer, which was what I would do if I had to work within the Obamacare framework. But before I did, Ted Marmor interrupted and, waving his hand, said, "Notice, David, that no one is applauding." I found that kind of amusing because it was as if Ted thought I had kidded myself that that line, at Oberlin of all places, would be an applause line. So I simply ignored him and went on to give the second part of my answer. That part was that I would let the ratio of premiums for the oldest to the youngest go as high as 7 to 1 instead of the current 3 to 1, because that would substantially reduce the redistribution from young to old and, therefore, would entice more younger people to buy insurance. I added that if the government insisted on mandating insurance, it should mandate "honest-to-goodness" catastrophic insurance without bells and whistles such as its current requirements that men buy insurance against pregnancy and that families without children buy pediatric dental. That was one of those places where I had the sense that people were listening and saying to themselves "I didn't know that." Then I said, "You've probably heard that Republicans in Congress have voted to repeal Obamacare over 40 times." I saw one of the two leaders of the Democratic club on campus [I had met him at the dinner preceding the event] nodding his head and grinning, because, of course, he had heard that and weren't those Republicans silly.

I continued:

What you probably have not heard is that some of those votes to repeal Obamacare were successful. They passed both houses of Congress with substantial majorities and were signed by the President. Of course, the votes that were successful weren't for total repeal. But let me tell you about one part that was repealed. There was a requirement that if you paid someone $600 or more in a calendar year for anything, you have to send that person a 1099 tax form. I pay a gardener $80 a month or $960 a year. I would have had to file a tax form with the IRS. Congress voted to repeal that part of Obamacare and Obama signed it.

I looked at the Democratic student and the look of surprise on his face was precious. I continued:
Also, President Obama himself has temporarily repealed part of Obamacare by simply deciding on his own to delay the employer mandate. He has no authority to do that but he did it anyway. Then, shortly after he did it, the House of Representatives passed a bill that made what he did legal. And what did Obama do? He threatened to veto a law that legalized what he did. How crazy is that?

My take was that the audience was surprised because few of them had heard that.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

Well, signing it would have been tantamount to admission of guilt to a rather serious offense.

Congress can't make ex post facto laws: Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3. So it would have been illegal when he did it, if it became legal with the passage of a law.

I'm not sure it qualifies as a high crime or misdemeanor, though.

And even if it does, the President is de facto above the law when Congress lacks the political will to prosecute him.

Anon writes:

My favourite part of Obamacare was when I realised that we weren't eligible for subsidies because our income is significantly below the official poverty line. Since our state didn't expand Medicaid, that means the least expensive plan available is about twice the price and twice the deductible as our old plan (which didn't meet the new standards). We can't afford that, so we no longer have health insurance.

Of course, people will say that's not Obamacare's fault, but the fault of the individual states who didn't expand Medicaid, because that was part of the original plan. In a sense, this is correct. However, once it was established that some states wouldn't expand Medicaid, then pressing on with the original plan was like attempting to drive away in a car that you know has a flat tire. Once you know about the flat tire, you can't proceed until you do something about it. Saying that you hadn't planned on having a flat tire or that it wasn't your fault is irrelevant, because you still have to deal with it before driving away.

As of now, the passing of Obamacare has made health insurance utterly unaffordable to anyone living below the poverty line, and who isn't eligible for Medicaid, in about half of the states of the union. Presumably, this situation will not persist indefinitely, but until something changes I'm going to remain pissed off at the whole sordid business.

Steve writes:

Did anyone do an audio or video recording?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Anon,
Interesting--and upsetting--story, and good analogy. Thanks.
@Steve,
Yes audio and video. Both Ted and I agreed to have it recorded. Unfortunately, they are not including the Q&A because they said they would have had to get permission of everyone who asked a question. So what will be available will be the first 60% of the event.

Brandon Berg writes:

What do you mean when you say Obamacare requires men to purchase coverage for pregnancy? Obviously the actuarial cost of insuring against pregnancy-related costs for men is zero, so I can't see that being an issue. Do you just mean that insurers aren't allowed to vary rates by sex?

Lauren writes:

Hi, Brandon.

Do you just mean that insurers aren't allowed to vary rates by sex?

Right. Under Obamacare, insurers are not allowed to vary rates by sex when it comes to pregnancy costs. Insurers can have different rates by sex, but not if that has anything to do with pregnancy. So, say, if women and men have different rates of accidents or heart attacks, their insurance rates can differ. But the fact that only women can get pregnant is not allowed to contribute toward higher insurance rates for women than men.

So, no matter what the obvious actuarial cost differences regarding pregnancy, everyone now pays the same rate, all pooled together, when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth costs. If you are a male, you still pay in the same share for pregnancy in your health insurance as if you are female. Insurers are no longer allowed to have different rates for males and females regarding pregnancy.

I assume you've already agreed to your insurance for the coming year. If you saw your rate increase, no matter whether you are a male or perhaps whether you are a female well past childbearing age, one of the things you are now paying for is pregnancy by women of child-bearing age. You can't opt out or get a lower rate just because you are a male and are obviously physically incapable of becoming pregnant. It's the law under Obamacare. Or at least, it's my understanding of the law. Maybe some states allow for other options.

One explanation is here.

TMC writes:

David,

Very good post, but I wish it had ended where the students did give you a nice round of applause. Frankly, for Oberlin, the boos Karl Rove got are an indicator of high quality. You may have made a few students think, but I fear probably not for long as their minds shut again. Always worth the effort though. While I enjoy all the contributors here, your stories are my favorite.

David R. Henderson writes:

@TMC,
The students gave us both a nice round of applause at the end. Of course, one cannot know to what extent they were applauding for me and to what extent they were applauding for Ted. I agree that it’s always worth the effort, as long as I’m being paid. :-) But, talking about payment, Tim Hall asked me at dinner Tuesday night if I would give an impromptu lecture to his philosophy class later that evening. I did so, and of course, that was zero price. It went very well with almost 40% of the 20-some students participating and “getting” it. We got from gains from exchange to why sweatshops are good and why the drug war is so hard to fight to why people should be allowed to sell their kidneys. We covered a lot of the same ground I do here. As a one-two punch, James Stacey Taylor came in on Thursday night to give a talk about why people should be allowed to sell their kidneys. So I set it up nicely for him.
One of the things I hope, and have some reason to suspect happens, is that some of the students realize how little alternate information they’re getting and keep that in mind.
Thanks for your compliment on my stories.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brandon Berg,
What Lauren said is my understanding also. Thanks, Lauren.

MingoV writes:

Let's be generous and claim that 25 students "got" it during the debate. Five students got it after the philosophy class lecture. If such a victory by economists occurs every day, then after 10,000 years almost half of the adults in the USA will "get" it, assuming the population doesn't grow.

I'm not denigrating Professor Henderson's efforts, which I applaud. My point is that nothing will change unless those who "get" it convince many other people to "get" it. My own efforts on this and similar issues have success rates of 0-5%, so the attempts to convince others also may fail to make a difference.

Mico writes:

MingoV,

I think you underestimate the effectiveness considerably. We don't need every or even half of adults to "get" it, just the top few percent who control the means of information dissemination - schools, newspapers, TV stations, etc.

Most people who support policies like the drug war and the minimum wage don't do so after thorough personal analysis of the facts, but because people they respect support them. We are looking to persuade respected people.

MingoV writes:

@Mico: These were college students, not controllers of information or 'respected' people. Convincing the media that mandated minimum wages are wrong would require brain transplants.

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