Learning From “Obamacare”

Some people are ardent proponents of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — known to many as “Obamacare” — and others are equally ardent opponents.  People on both sides of the issue feel passionately about whether the concept and purpose of the statute is good or bad, and it’s hard for a moderate to find common ground.

I think there is one thing, however, that fair-minded people on both sides of the issue might grudgingly accept:  the implementation of the statute hasn’t gone as its advocates forecast.  There have been delays in promulgating regulations, and developing systems to audit and enforce the different provisions of the law.  There have been unexpected consequences, as employers have considered the economic impact of different potential approaches to compliance with the law — a process that has resulted, for example, in some employers deciding to focus more on part-time workers.  The allegiances of former supporters of the bill, such as labor unions, have in some cases shifted as regulations are promulgated and the potential impact of the statute has become clearer.

None of this is particularly surprising, but it does teach a valuable lesson.  The American economy is extraordinarily complex, and whenever Congress promises to take an action that “fixes” a problem, we should all show a healthy skepticism.  Health care is a significant and complicated part of the economy, but it’s not appreciably different than, say, the mortgage loan sector.  People are, perhaps, more aware of the issues with the Affordable Care Act because it has been the continuing subject of withering public attention and because, in certain respects, its implementation is having an impact on everyday Americans — but I think it’s quite plausible that the financial institutions regulation that Congress enacted recently, or for that matter the Patriot Act passed in the wake of 9/11, are having similar issues and producing similarly unanticipated effects.

This has nothing to do with the party affiliation of the sponsors of legislation, or even the competence of the administrators trying to draft appropriate regulations.  It’s just reality.  The American economy is intertwined and interdependent and interconnected that broad-based regulations are going to have a ripple effect that could go far beyond whatever the politicians promise.  All of us, Democrat and Republican, should remember that the next time Congress makes confident predictions about the effect of a significant statute.

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