Saturday, January 26, 2013

Let's Scrap the Employer Mandate

One of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that has aroused the most controversy (perhaps because it is one of the few provisions that most people can readily understand) is the "employer mandate" requiring that all businesses with 50 or more workers provide their full-time employees with health care coverage by 2014. While the employer mandate does not affect nearly as many people as the "individual mandate" requiring that every man, woman, and child purchase health insurance by that date or face a substantial monetary penalty, it has generated its own little tempest. Most of the resistance to the employer mandate has come from restaurant chains, most notably from the CEO of Papa John's Pizza, John Schnatter. He made quite a splash last December by predicting that companies like his would "find loopholes to get around" the requirement, opining that "its common sense for companies to reduce workers hours so that they no longer fit the definition of full-time employees. Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden, acknowledged that it was experimenting with cutting workers's hours for the same purpose. The owners of Carl's Jr. and Hardees chains announced that they would employ many more part-time workers in the future. One Denny's franchise owner in Florida said that he would add 5% to the price of each meal. Papa John himself calculates that providing health insurance coverage would add from 11 to 14 cents per pizza. (Maybe I am missing something here, but don't hours reductions and price increases place the burden on employees and customers, rather than on owners and managers?) Reacting to a customer backlash (workers obviously have a choice between working part-time and seeking other employment with more sympathetic fast food entrepreneurs), some companies and their executives have softened their original positions. Last week, Darden announced that it would not reduce the hours of current employees (what about new hires?), while Papa John said that while he could not speak for individual franchise owners, the corporation itself would not cut workers hours. In addition, he announced on The Huffington Post  "the good news" that full-time workers would receive coverage, and that the company would not be put at a competitive disadvantage because "our competitors are going to have to do the same thing."

Incredibly enough, the concept of employer mandate originated during the administration of that notorious crypto-socialist Richard Nixon. Realizing that the Democrats had accumulated a lot of political capitol by enacting Medicare and Medicaid, and aware that the rising costs of health care were a serious drag upon the economy, he proposed that all employers be required to pay health benefits for their workers. He even suggested a subsidized government insurance program for all Americans that employer coverage did not reach. (This was a giant leap from his position during the 1960 presidential debates when he had half-heartedly suggested that those who who so desired should have a choice government or private insurance.)  Of course, he was not unaware that such a program would mean millions of new customers for private insurance companies, but let's give the devil his due.
As Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker has observed, Nixon seemed "more interested in rationalizing health care than promoting national health insurance. Although as many as 20 separate bills were introduced during Nixon's administration. no proposal for universal coverage received a majority vote from a Congressional committee until the ill-fated measure designed by Hillary and Bill Clinton in 1994. Perhaps the major result of Nixon's efforts was the formation of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), which were a great boon to insurers and to the medical profession in general. Membership in HMOs was clearly out of the financial reach of millions of citizens. Ironically, opposition to Nixon's proposals was led by none other than Ted Kennedy, who wanted single-pay universal coverage. It was a mistake that he later regretted. He had erroneously believed that the momentum for universal health insurance was irresistible. "It was that rare moment in his Senate career when he made a fundamental miscalculation about what was politically possible--a lot of liberals did," according to Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker. "What was not recognized by anyone at the time was that this was the end of the New Deal era" he adds, and that the tax revolts of the 1970s "ushered in Ronald Reagan and a conservative, antigovernment [sic] philosophy." That mindset, in turn, was given a momentous boost by the Watergate Scandal and Nixon's forced resignation, (Poor Trick Dick. Even when he tried to "appeal to the better angels of our nature", he was sandbagged by his baser instincts.) As for Ted, Chappaquiddick proved to be his Watergate. He had earlier joined with Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers  and several physicians, professors, and politicians in forming a Committee for National Health Insurance, which produced an ill-fated Health Security bill. In 1991, he 
co-sponsored an unsuccessful Health America bill that combined an employer mandate with "Medicare For All.".(Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt even facetiously asked the "Liberal Lion" if he intended to give Nixon a footnote.)

So, for better or worse, the employer mandate has been one of the cornerstones of our health care policy, for nearly 40 years. It is clearly nothing new or radical. In fact, it has generally enjoyed bipartisan support. What, then, is causing all this brouhaha? Maybe it is because "Obamacare" signals a greater determination on the part of the federal government to expand and enforce the mandate. Much of it is certainly due to the fact that today's health care industry is much better organized, more powerful, and more intransigent than it was in the 1970s. Much of it is certainly due to the fact that today's Republicans make those of the Nixon Era seem like flaming liberals--or even, heaven forfend, socialists. As noted above, many employers fervently believe that the mandate will force them take measures that would pain them to the quick--raise prices, cut back workers' hours, or mechanize and computerize because machines don't get sick and don't require health coverage. It would also put them at the mercy of private health insurers, which is a state that no savvy businessman would submit to willingly. They understand that insurers would make them "pay through the nose," because that is exactly what most of them would do in a similar situation.

Fortunately, there is a solution, one that would employer and employees alike, as well as the millions of Americans who have not been able to secure or hold a job that entitles them to health care coverage. It would liberate employers from an onerous and expensive obligation, significantly lower their cost of doing business, and free them to spend more money on adding new workers, paying higher wages and other benefits, research and development, and service to their communities. It would free them from conforming to the endless paperwork and red tape imposed by business and government bureaucracies alike. It would eliminate the need to haggle with unions or other employee advocates. over the relative merits of insurance plans, and to worry if they were doing the best possible job of providing the best possible health care for their employees  It would eliminate one major bone of contention between employers and employees. It would eliminate the nagging fear that their workers have decided to work for them, instead of one on their competitors, solely because they have a better health insurance plan. We could call it universal health coverage, single-pay, a public option, Medicare for All, or any of the various models that grown-up countries already have. We could even call it something like a free market in health insurance. It would validate the first principle of insurance: the larger the pool of subscribers, the more the risks are spread out and their total cost minimized. It would not necessarily eliminate private, for-profit health insurers. It would only require them to compete on an equal footing with their peers and against the "yardstick" provided by a public option. Of course, it might cut down on their profits and dividends, as well as on the salaries and benefit packages of their executives, but that would be a relatively small price to pay for creating a much more efficient and economical health care system.

Come to think of it, such a system would also eliminate the even more odious individual mandate.  


Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Invitation to Join the NRA

My mailed invitation to join the NRA is headed "Dear Friend," and is signed by Wayne LaPierre, the organization's executive vice-president and CEO. That greeting seems overly familiar and grossly impersonal, all at the same time.
I have never owned a gun of any sort and have never contributed to any organization nor subscribed to any  publication even remotely connected to the NRA. In fact, the only time in my life that I ever  held a gun in my hand and fired one at a rifle range is when I was in compulsory Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at Loras Academy back in the 1950s. I learned to take apart and reassemble a World War II MI carbine, as well as to march and drill with one. Even though I rose to the rank of major and executive officer of our battalion, and won the Chicago Tribune Award for excellence in military science and tactics, ROTC was not one of the most pleasant experiences of my high school career. I have never touched a handgun of any description, unless you count playing "Cowboys and Indians" as a kid. We had "cap pistols" that made noise and gave off the smoke and smell of ersatz gun powder. I never even asked for a "BB Gun" for Christmas like Ralphie in "A Christmas Story," although I am sure that my parents would have refused, probably because they were afraid that "you will shoot your eye out." My father, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, told of people that he knew who had been seriously wounded or even killed by the "unloaded" shotguns that some of his neighbors kept behind their kitchen doors. Besides that, I am a long-time, card- carrying member of the Wisconsin Democratic Party,belong to more progressive organizations and subscribe to more progressive publications than I can remember , and have signed numerous petitions advocating almost every kind of gun control imaginable. My ideological orientation virtually screams from my blog posts, Facebook info, and other devices of social media, as well as from my myriad publications and letters to the editor.

So what?, you.ask. My point is this: If the NRA sponsored a contest or a survey to find the people least likely to join their organization, I flatter myself that I would at the very top of the shortest possible list. So how on earth did the NRA possibly single me out as a potential member? How in hell do they generate their mailing list?  

Regardless of the answer to that puzzle, I have to admit that the NRA offered me a lot more incentives to join than I have ever gotten from other organization. To begin with, the invitation  offered me a substantial discount just for joining: $25.00 for one year (normally $35.00) and $70.00 for three years, instead of the normal $85.00.
It was also very careful to inform me that "contributions, gifts, or membership dues made or paid to the National Rifle Association of America are not refundable or transferable and are not deductible as charitable contributions for Federal income tax purposes."  It also acknowledged that "$3.75 of the membership dues are designated for magazine subscription," and that I could choose among American Rifleman, American Hunter, or Freedom First..American Rifleman is also available in Digital or Premium Digital editions. The latter also includes several bonuses, including instant videos, links to other sites, photo galleries, interactive ads, social media sharing, sound, animation, and "special editions."  The digital edition is narrated by a professional quality voice-over which assures me that subscribing puts the viewer "in the driver's seat," and saves the organization the cost of printing and postage which can then be applied to the "fight for firearms freedom." There is also a "juniors only" magazine called Insights. 

In addition, new members also receive $7,500 of insurance, free admission to the NRA's Annual Guns, Gear, and Outfitter Show, membership card and decal, and invitations to "special events and more." New members can also have a choice among three free gifts: a Rosewood Handle Knife, a Black and Gold Duffel Bag, and a Digital Camo Duffel Bag. They can also contribute to the Military Membership Fund, shop at an NRA Stores, access its video-on-demand archive, Wayne LaPierre's daily blog, live web casts on, and the NRA Car Buying Service, as well as shop at NRA Stores. By calling toll free numbers, members can also receive a Visa credit card and checks bearing the NRA logo, as well as property, casualty, auto, home, and term life insurance. They can also receive a 15% discount from Beverly Hills International, Inc. [located, oddly enough, in Boca Raton, Florida], "which supplies corporate awards, business gifts, and promotional products to companies and organizations worldwide." And that is only the tip of an iceberg of "perqs" and "bennies".

Members are also eligible for a veritable cornucopia of additional Members Only Discounts, including those from: Lifelock Identity Theft Protection, North American and Allied Van Lines, and Air Brook Limousine Service ("A chauffeur-driven full service featuring luxury sedans, stretch limos, vans, mini -buses and full size motor coaches, including day trips, tours and packages."); I did not have the intestinal fortitude to print out the entire list, but I did determine that, if I had, it would run to 68 pages with several items on each page. Even more informative and awe-inspiring is the roster of "NRA Affiliate Discounts": MoveBenefits that include mortgage and real estate services, Outdoor Affinity Telecom, bsecure Family Protection, NRA wine club, holiday cards, and video collections, Lifeline screening, hearing benefits, prescription drug plans, health services, Hertz, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, National. and Alamo car rental services, Baymont, Knights Inn, Best Western, Hawthorn, Microtel, Howard Johnson, Ramada, Super 8, Wyndham, Travelodge, and Wingate hotel chains. Then there are the NRA Licensed Products that include Gun Safes by Liberty, Second Amendment Revolvers, Moose ATV and UtV Products, Resistol Hats, Sportsman's Bench Products, and T-Shirts By Buck Wear. You can also shop online at <> and access NRA Program Materials Center, Fold-Up Duck Decoys, Blue Book Publications, and Palladium Press.
To broadcast its message as widely and completely as possible, the NRA maintains no less than 40 web sites, including Business Alliance, Civil Rights Defense Fund, Firearms For Freedom, Gunsmithing, Hunters Rights, National Firearms Museum, NRA Country, NRA Digital Network, Life Of Duty, Women's Network, Political Victory Fund, Shooting Illustrated, and NRA Instructors and Programs. There is also a membership recruiting program called "NRA Recruiter" that invites members to "join the thousands of NRA certified instructors, affiliated clubs, independent businesses, and dedicated members who are already participating," This program "provides a great opportunity to not only strengthen the NRA by increasing membership, but also to earn money at the same time." There is no cost to enroll and "participants are furnished with NRA recruiting materials, as well as effective recruiting techniques.?           

On a less mercenary level, the organization proclaims that "the NRA is you," millions of Americans representing a diverse contrast of age, sex, race, and religion. You are patriots one and all. You believe in the Constitution,
staunch in the defense of your rights, and you actively pursue some of the country's finest traditions--Hunting and Sports Shooting. Since its incorporation in 1871, the NRA has grown as a service organization involved in all aspects of the shooting sports and a proud defender of the Bill of Rights[at least the second half of the Second Amendment]." Just in case that lofty appeal is not sufficiently motivating, the organization's pitch reminds prospective members that they will also be eligible for "a wide range of benefits that add up to savings, convenience, and fun." For many Americans, the NRA seems little different from the myriad fraternal/benevolent societies that have always been a distinguishing hallmark of the United States, except that none of the others offer  such a dazzling array of member benefits.         

Of course it is impossible to calculate how much of the NRA's ability to recruit and retain members is a product of its incredible benefits package. Its very existence, however, suggests strongly that the organization is afraid to rely entirely upon its ideological orientation for success. Moreover, even a casual reading of the list of discounts, benefits, and perquisites outlined above, and of the roster of mainstream businesses and organizations that are engaged in providing those member benefits, strikingly demonstrates the degree to which the NRA has succeeded in making itself seem a "normal" and non-threatening part of our economic and social fabric. By bonding its members to an "all or nothing" dictum of gun ownership, it has effectively forestalled possible defections over such proposals as a ban on automatic assault weapons or opposition to "concealed carry" laws. It success at this strategy is demonstrated by the fact that only 44% of Americans currently support stricter guns laws, compared to
78% in 1990. Since that time, it has expanded to more than four million members with an operating budget of some $300 million, an increase of about 400% since 1990. According to a recent article on the Huffington Post, the NRA has 140 times more dues paying members than does its opposite number-- the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence--and spent 1,000 times more money on the 2012 election. Although it received "a ton of money from gun manufacturers and vendors (including those who manufacture assault weapons and high capacity magazines), such as Arsenal, Beretta, Browing, Brownells, DPMS Panther Arms, Glock, Remington Arms, Smith and Wesson,  Sturm, Ruger &Co., and Winchester", the "majority of its funds still come from ordinary citizens--from kits 4.3 million members." Small wonder that the NRA is so attractive to so many different people, and so intimidating to so many politicians. After all, "nobody shoots Santa Claus."