The Truth, Mainly - 10/11/1993

Getting free enterprise off our backs
by Leon Satterfield

"I am not a friend to a very energetic government," Thomas Jefferson once sighed. It's a feeling most of us get at times.

It's hard to be a friend to government when you read that the CIA wants an additional $55 million from our pockets to buy back the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles it gave free of charge to the Afghan rebels back in the 80s.

And it's hard to be a pal to a government that rigs SDI tests to get a gullible Congress to pour more of our money down the dry hole of the Gipper's Star Wars fantasy.

Nevertheless, I get the fantods from an anti-government proposal being floated by Clinton's Federal Highway Administration. It would turn over operation of part of the interstate highway to private business.

"We have got to get the private sector involved in financing highway improvements," an FHA honcho says.

That means, I'm afraid, running the interstate on a "business-like" basis— toll gates charging what the traffic will bear, potholes praised as evidence the roadway is "pre-tested," green-light specials for the stretch between Big Springs and Julesburg. In short, hucksterism on I-80.

No, thanks. I'll get my greed and incompetence from rascals we can throw out of office every once in a while.

In minor matters of trade—better mousetraps, widgets with built-in obsolescence, new and improved bellywash—I'm willing to let unfettered capitalism have its profiteering way with us. Not because I'm convinced it's for the common weal, but because it's sometimes amusing.

Consider the marketing scheme hatched up last month by deep thinkers for the UK division of the Hoover vacuum cleaner company owned by the Maytag Corp., right next door in Newton, Iowa. They offered two free international airline tickets to anyone who'd buy a new Hoover.

They overlooked a minor detail: two international airline tickets cost more than most new Hoovers.

The result was that Hoover had to set aside $30 million to pay for 103,000 UK customers' flights to the US and Europe, and for an "unspecified number" who will take off before the promotion ends in April.

So being a friend to very energetic free enterprise may be as hazardous as being a friend to very energetic government. I don't trust an unregulated free market in matters much more important than vacuum cleaners.

Health care comes to mind.

Since the Clintons' proposal to revamp the system, we've been told by the free market True Believers—those who see the economy as a theological question , who see the invisible hand of free enterprise as an appendage of God—that the health system we've got isn't broke so we shouldn't fix it. When you're a free enterprise fundamentalist, the assumption is that anything growing out of free enterprise is, by definition, the best of all possible systems and not to be tinkered with.

There's a touching ideological purity to that position, but it ignores the data.

We've all seen the numbers by now that show how the invisible hand has goosed us into spending a larger percentage of our gross domestic product on health care than other countries do—and getting less to show for it.

And we can all tell stories that show the system isn't working. Wait a minute with yours while I tell mine:

A friend in Colorado had a hip replaced this summer. Because she recently got a new job and new medical insurance, she discovered that anything relating to her pre-existing arthritus—including her bad hip—isn't covered by her new policy. So she had to come up with $35,000 to pay the bill.

If you tell her the system is working, it makes her cranky.

Another Colorado story: Tom Levin, chief executive of Blue Cross-Blue Shield out there, was fired from his $575,000 job this summer because the state insurance commissioner concluded the Blues were overcharging on premiums, making risky loans to Blues in other states, paying excessive executive salaries and benefits, and using questionable bookkeeping practices.

You might think that Mr. Levin could have saved enough from his $575,000 annual salary to tide him over until he could find something else in the help wanted ads, but the Blue Cross-Blue Shield board of directors gave the poor guy $1.5 million severance pay. Enough to cover about 43 hip replacements should he need them.

He probably thinks the health care system works just fine, thank you.

A long time ago we decided that universal education was too important to be left to the free market. Forty years ago, we decided that even an interstate highway was too important for the invisible hand to produce. Is it too much to hope that we're about to decide that ideological purity is less important than a health care system that works for all of us?


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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