Hank Minor: The appeal of universal programs

Sunday, December 2, 2018 - 2:08pm

Any mention of universal social programs inevitably devolves into discussion of their exorbitant cost and the undesirability of making programs available to people who don’t need them. In 2015, former State Secretary Hillary Clinton somewhat notoriously said, “Now, I'm a little different from those who say free college for everybody. I am not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump's kids.” This phrasing has become the central argument against universal programs by liberals: Why would the left want to extend taxpayer funded college, health care, family leave or debt relief to “Donald Trump’s kids”—that is, the wealthy?

Many articles and columns on the topic seem to miss the overall point behind universal programs, choosing to evaluate them on purely economic grounds. Overall, a means tested debt-free college program like Clinton suggested would be more cost effective, and wouldn’t waste resources on people who are generally capable of shouldering their burdens alone. The reason left wing politicians advocate big programs, though, is because they’re simple to understand and usually quite popular.

Take Obamacare, for example. After its passage, most people will still get health insurance through their employers, but not everyone — thus, you can buy your own plan from the private market on a public exchange. There’s an individual mandate, so you’ll pay an extra tax come April if you fail to sign up for coverage. Not everyone can afford these new plans, though, even with the price reducing measures, so you can request subsidies through a separate process. Additionally, if you’re under 26, you can use your parents’ insurance — as long as they have a plan that qualifies under the new standard, though.

Contrast this with Medicare for All system.  Everyone knows what Medicare is — health insurance — and most people who use it are satisfied. Maybe this is bad for public discourse: Bulky means-tested bills like Obamacare are either incomprehensible or can be ripped apart, despite their potential advantages. Maybe we lose something important when a large portion of Americans choose not to spend their free time poring over the latest news from Capitol Hill, but that’s the reality we’re faced with.

Furthermore, the fundamental desire behind Obamacare and Medicare for All are the same: People want health care, and they want it to be affordable. When columnists and commentators lament the ignorance of the public (or Millennials, or liberals, or conservatives) they’re pretending people actually care about the individual facets of a bill rather than its overall effect. Where's the utility in reminding people that some specific manifestation of their demand is impractical?

Maybe it’s useful as a way to combat the surface-level appeal of big, expensive policies — people support Medicare for All, but telling them it could cost upwards of $30 trillion for America in federal spending, might dampen that enthusiasm. Matt Bruenig or other Medicare-for-All proponents will dispute the idea that such an expensive program isn’t as expensive as the status quo; around and around it goes. For most people, though, this sort of thing isn’t useful. Economic models and “viability” estimates (i.e.,  the likelihood of legislation passing) are only useful as ways to validate preexisting political inclinations.

Obviously, most people would tell you that they form their beliefs only after researching in great detail — some of them might actually do the research, combing through newspapers and academic journals for the best possible options. Be that as it may, these people are rare — and despite their efforts, they’re likely to find their preexisting ideology the most factually viable. Politicians — especially those on the left — use big policies to overcome this. Untangling support for the moral argument “everyone deserves health care” using economics is a lot more difficult than building that belief in the first place.

Given this, I find it mystifying when national columnists use their platform to argue against the little details of policy, like David Leonhardt’s recent argument against universal student debt forgiveness. Yes, upper middle-class students have a lot of debt (and don’t really need help paying it off). The reason debt forgiveness is popular, though, was never its economic efficiency.

It’s easy to say people should just pay more attention to the news, instead of responding to easily digestible policy slogans (“Medicare for All,” “universally free college,” “cancel student debt”) but admonishing the public is worse than useless — it actively makes people dislike you. Anyone with a platform who’s inclined to argue against broad, undiscerning programs should focus on why people want them in the first place, instead of the minutiae of individual proposals.

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu.