Student Questions: Health Care and Education

BY Business Desk  November 4, 2009 at 3:12 PM EDT

doctor; Getty Images

Editor’s note: This week and next, the Business Desk will feature questions from students in three high schools around the country.

Question: If every other major economy in the world has universal health care why doesn’t the United States? — Kavion, senior, Central High School, Phoenix, Ariz.

Paul Solman: The excellent health economist Victor Fuchs gives four reasons:

1. Many organizations prefer the status quo. (Insurance companies, drug companies)

2. Machiavelli’s “Law of Reform” suggests that a determined and concentrated minority fighting to preserve the status quo has a considerable advantage over a more diffuse majority who favor reform.

3. Our country’s political system renders Machiavelli’s Law of Reform particularly relevant in the United States, where many potential “choke points” offer opportunities to stifle change.

4. Reformers have failed to unite behind a single approach.

I can’t do any better than that, except to add that health care’s opponents have spent a lot of money scaring Americans about “socialized” medicine, suggesting that government health care is simply not “American” because it doesn’t rely on the “free market.”

The vulnerability of Americans to such appeals was apparent when protesters at a Congressional town hall meeting on health care said: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” But Medicare is a government program for all Americans over 65. It does not rely on the free market at all.

Question: If education helps to increase economic growth, why don’t politicians pay more attention to and spend more money on K-12 schools? — April, senior, Central High School, Phoenix, Ariz.

Paul Solman: Because economic growth is a long-term and iffy thing. Human beings don’t love giving up something today (money) on iffy outcomes years down the road. I’m not sure how appealing the politics of education spending would be even if it could be shown persuasively to increase economic growth. Since the results aren’t blindingly clear, the appeal is even less than it might otherwise be.