Parsing “Populism” in Resistance to Reform
Today the NYT leads with a story on a growing resistance to the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. The mandate is a key part of virtually all the reform bills now being discussed. A “growing group of lawmakers are pressing for state constitutional amendments that [they believe] would outlaw” the mandate in their states. Law professors have a dim view of the effort:
“States can no more nullify a federal law like this than they could nullify the civil rights laws by adopting constitutional amendments,” said Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, a health law expert at Washington & Lee University School of Law.
Mark A. Hall, a law professor at Wake Forest who has studied the constitutionality of mandates that people buy health insurance, said, “There is no way this challenge will succeed in court,” adding that the state measures seemed more “sort of an act of defiance, a form of civil disobedience if you will.”
Even Randy E. Barnett, a Georgetown Law professor who has written about what he views as legitimate constitutional questions about health insurance mandates, seemed doubtful. “While using federal power to force individuals to buy private insurance raises serious constitutional questions, I just don’t see what these state resolutions add to the constitutional objections to this expansion of federal power,” Professor Barnett said.
What I find so depressing about the new Orval Faubuses of health care is their failure to address funding mechanisms for purchasing health that would make the mandates much less onerous. As I blogged earlier this summer, the House Tri-Committee Bill tries to shift the burden of paying for health care from the already strapped lower-middle class to wealthier citizens who have disproportionately benefited from globalization and other economic trends. At that post, attorney David S. Miller commented:
A mark-to-market tax on the publicly-traded securities of the highest-income and wealthiest individuals would achieve [even more progressivity]. This proposal would also raise significantly more revenue than the [proposed House] surtax, would not require any increase in tax rates, would affect far fewer taxpayers, and would be more in line with the consensus view that the tax base must be broadened. It would also level the playing field between wage and income earners (who are currently subject to tax at ordinary income rates on all or virtually all of their economic income) and with investors (who defer tax indefinitely on appreciation and, when taxed, pay it at reduced long-term capital gains rates).
Unfortunately, the ballyhooed Baucus Bill appears to be far less redistributive than even the House Bill (which I have criticized for failing to distinguish between the merely well-off and the truly wealthy–a very important distinction in an era of fractal inequality). The new state resistance to a mandate should be seen as less a defense of the middle class than it is a sad example of classically self-defeating resistance to equitable distribution of social benefits and burdens.
Health reform financing must rely not merely on redistribution from the healthy to the sick, but also from the rich to the rest. A just society is committed to the universal destination of human goods-–especially those essential to the preservation of human life. Perhaps we will eventually reach a point at which taxation of those at the top to provide for the care of those at the bottom truly threatens the well-being of our economy. But when “the increase in incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans from 2003 to 2005 exceed[s] the total income of the poorest 20 percent of Americans,” we’re a long way from that point on the Laffer Curve.