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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Remembering Why We Celebrate Labor Day

Today Americans — well, most of us who aren’t working at stores that have big Labor Day sales, anyway — get the day off.  Why?

IMG_4844Labor holidays were the idea of trade unions in America’s large industrial cities.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, the first labor day celebration, on September 5, 1882, occurred in New York City, and by 1885 the idea had spread to many urban areas.   Labor Day was recognized as a holiday by some states in the 1880s, and the federal government followed suit in 1894, declaring that the first Monday in September would be celebrated as Labor Day in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Interestingly, unions developed the idea of Labor Day during a period of some of the worst clashes between unions and management in American history.  For example, the Pullman railroad workers strike in 1894 — the same year the federal government recognized the Labor Day holiday — caused a number of deaths and was broken only after President Grover Cleveland called out the Army.  Although most people focus on such strikes, the union movement also was responsible for pushing many of the work day, safety, and wage laws that Americans take for granted today.

The basic idea behind Labor Day, of course, is to give American workers a holiday from their labors.  Of all of the three-day weekends we receive during the year, therefore, Labor Day is the one best suited to commemorate with a simple day off in all its glory, from sleeping in to lounging around to grilling a brat or two as the day winds down.  Happy Labor Day!

What Lessons Are Being Taught By The Chicago Teachers’ Strike?

I have a lot of respect for teachers — what educated person doesn’t? — but I think the strike in Chicago is doing nothing except harming the public image of teachers and public employee unions.

Years ago, people used to compare what a professional baseball player was being paid to the average salary of teacher, and then ask, rhetorically, what the huge difference said about our society and its values.  Since those days, there has been a concerted effort to increase salaries, and teachers have been successful in bargaining for all kinds of benefits and rights, arguing that they are doing so “for the sake of the children.”  Eventually, people started to wonder whether teacher demands weren’t really more about benefiting teachers rather than benefiting students.

The Chicago Teachers Union strike will continue that trend.  In a time of high unemployment, the median salary for Chicago teachers is $67,974, and the union went on strike even after receiving an offer that would have produced average salary increases of 16 percent over four years.  The offer also would have frozen health benefit cost increases for two-thirds of union members.  The principal sticking points apparently are evaluations — the district wants a process that is based on student standardized test scores, the teachers call that approach unacceptable — and what happens to teachers who are laid off.  As the teachers walk picket lines, thousands of students are left without a school to attend, and parents are scrambling for alternative child-care arrangements.

Richard worked in the Chicago Public School system as a tutor; I’d be interested in his thoughts on this issue.  In the meantime, I would guess that the strike is unlikely to find a very receptive audience anywhere.  Chicago teachers already make more than most people do.  How many people are going to be sympathetic when the strike is primarily about how those teachers are evaluated and their job security — and the strikes leaves the kids teachers profess to speak for in the without schools to attend?