Crisis Fatigue

After the State of the Union Address, Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein concluded that Democrats and Republicans have nothing "original, credible or even mildly intellectually intriguing to say about … the health care crisis, the energy crisis, the income inequality crisis, the education crisis, the global warming crisis, the looming entitlement crisis …"

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has exhibited an unhealthy appetite for bankrolling FARI — the False Alarm Research Industry — which continually fabricates lucrative scare stories with one chance in a zillion of actually happening. Whip up a dramatic hypothetical scenario, and nobody dares object to spending several billions, even on diseases that do not exist. Whenever some group starts advertising and writing about this or that "crisis," what that really means is, "Please send us a really big check." Numerous special interests, including those peddling drug stockpiles or seeking research grants, nurture an endless series of crises as a marketing ploy to pry billions out of the U.S. Treasury.

Health, energy and education, on the other hand, can always be described as in a state of crisis with no further explanation offered or required. The word "crisis" has no meaning at all except that health, energy and education industries always use that pitch to beg for more federal loot.

The "energy crisis" also graduated to the status of a permanent affliction with the creation of an Energy Department — the main purpose of which is to funnel cash to politically connected enterprises whose main purpose is to waste money.

It turns out that the alleged crisis is that some people sometimes have no health insurance. We would not say that people without life insurance have no life, yet politicians do say those without health insurance have no health care.

This pseudo-crisis is entirely defined by a constantly repeated estimate of 45 million uninsured, which is deliberately exaggerated. The figure comes from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which picks up those without insurance in a single month rather than a whole year. The Census Bureau explicitly warns that "health insurance coverage is underreported in the CPS," which means the number uninsured is overreported. The bureau’s more reliable Survey of Income and Program Participation last showed only 18.9 million uninsured for a whole year, or 6.8 percent.

Once we grasp that expensive health care is a consequence of widespread over-insurance rather than rare under-insurance, solutions become much simpler and cheaper. If we likewise come to understand that the "education crisis" is a matter of too much federal intervention rather than too little, solutions will also become much simpler and cheaper. And if we could all become just a bit more skeptical toward those peddling various crises for fun and profit, government in general could become much simpler and cheaper.