Wednesday, October 14, 2009


“Never trust a barber who says you need a haircut", Anonymous

The wisdom offered in that quote seems pretty obvious. The referenced barber isn’t thinking about what you need. He’s thinking about what he needs.

I recalled this recently while watching a couple government officials on television tell each other how much America needs that nebulously defined Health Care Reform bill or what-ever-it-is that’s in those 1,114 pages. Notice, by the way, they keep telling us how much we need it, but they don’t tell us what’s in it. We have to depend on other sources for that.

A little hint came just the other day. An insurance industry group hired one of the Big-Four accounting firms, Price Waterhouse - Coopers, to work up some numbers on how much the plan will potentially cost individuals in additional annual health care expense – that is, money on top of what people already pay. On Monday morning, October 12th, they released their report: $1,700 – $4,000 per year was the range of numbers I heard. By 10:00am, the White House was firing back. Without refuting the claim, spokesperson Linda Douglas called the report “self-serving”.

“It comes on the eve of a vote that will reduce the industry’s profits,” she said.

The Administration was eager to shoot the messenger, but it didn’t sound like anyone had read the report and double-checked the figures, just to be sure.

Consequently, while the insurance business got bashed around some more, their numbers, $1,700 - $4,000 remained standing. If the problem with health care is the expense, why is fixing the problem going to result in even more expense? Again, no answer.

In Washington, in the back rooms where the deals are made, the word “haircut” is a euphemism. A fly on the wall during recent Senate Finance Committee meetings might have heard the word used in a sentence like “In order to pay for all of this we’re going to have to give Joe Public a ‘haircut’” or, “We need to carve out a 'doughnut' for Nevada because the Senate Majority leader will not allow the people of his state to take a ‘haircut’”.

No, “haircut” is not a happy word. Nor does it imply that Joe Public will have any say in the matter. That’s the distressing part.

Examples of the “haircut” can take various forms and are found at all levels of government. Basically, it is the legal deal elected officials concoct that trims, even scalps, one individual or group in order to pay for some program or project that benefits some other. Invariably, that “other” is connected to the politicians doing the barbering.

While the scale of operation changes to suit the level of government involved, the step-by-step procedure involved is generally the same.

So, to illustrate in a way that puts the meaning of the word in our own backyards, let us suppose that within recent memory you’ve received a “haircut” from your local municipal government.

If you were paying close attention to the play-by-play, perhaps events transpired something like this: The majority on your Town Council got cozy with a developer. They let a choice piece of property slip away to become part of the developer’s proposed strip mall or apartment complex. People in your community got wind of what was in store and began attending Council meetings and asking questions, much like those who attended the “Town Hall” meetings and Tea Parties of recent months. You joined neighbors and wrote letters, signed petitions, and hosted meetings of your own, all to no avail. In effect, you spoke, but were not heard. You found yourselves on the receiving end of some bad publicly in your local Gazette. You were vilified as a mob of selfish, no-growth NIMBYs who want local schools to crumble. Council clearly had their minds made up from the start. It was a done- deal. When the official vote was taken you and your community were on the losing end.

“It was a tough vote,” you were all told in consolation. “But there were just too many benefits to turn down.”

Then, a year or so later, after things had progressed, you learned that it was worse than you imagined: Yes, trees were cut down, and there was increased noise and congestion, and the promised tax benefits never quite materialized – just as you and other residents had predicted. But you had no idea how much worse it was going to be. It turned out State Law mandates that you and other taxpayers are going to have to pony up for new fire engine in order to service that new development. Not only will traffic lights will have to be added to accommodate the increased traffic, but the main street through town will have to be widened. And, now, due to all the construction, every time it rains back yards flood.

Yes, this is a small-scale hypothetical case, but events exactly like this happen in communities every day. This is an illustration of the classic “haircut”. Somebody with connections gets the gold mine, and the general public gets the shaft.

But, when we talk about health care reform we are not talking about some ill-conceived comb-over that leads to traffic snarls and a bump in property taxes. We are talking about a big-government imposed “fix” that, once enacted, will pretty much be set in bureaucratic stone. The “haircut” we need to be concerned with is the Big Haircut that is barreling through both houses of Congress, headed for a rubber-stamp vote by Thanksgiving and a nice signing ceremony by Christmas.

It is impossible for anything as massive as comprehensive health care reform to be properly planned in this kind of hurry. If we’re going to fix America’s health care problems, we need to do it right. Congress needs to post all information and answer all the questions. This is one haircut where the old physician’s rule should apply: First, do no harm.

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