For progressives in the U.S., even the simplest, most incremental reform seems like a climb up Mount Everest. And as the fight for health care reaches a critical stage, many of us watch in dismay as "centrist" politicians try to take what already was a centrist plan from the Obama Administration - nowhere close to "single payer," never mind "socialized medicine" - and pull it to the Right, making it far less responsive to America's real needs.
A big reason for this is that the health care industry spends a lot of money in Washington. But it also shows us how well the Right still dominates American political culture and discourse. It does this partly through a vast infrastructure of "think tanks" and other organizations. You've no doubt heard of many of them - the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Hoover Institute, etc. These organizations churn out an impressive quantity of data and position papers that circulate in Washington and also find their way into the nation's media.
What's striking about how conservative think tanks "think" is that they think backward. That is, instead of beginning with a problem and working out a solution, they begin with the solution (e.g., cut taxes, deregulate, privatize, cut taxes, eliminate government programs, and cut taxes) and work backward, cherry picking data all along the way, to reach the problem. And if the problem doesn't sit the solution, then the problem is "re-framed" so that it does.
In short, the function of the right-wing "think tank" infrastructure is not to craft policy, but to package and sell the Right's point of view. And they are very good at that.
To better understand the way the network of right-wing "think tanks" and their affiliate institutions work together to influence public opinion, let us examine just one, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
The Manhattan Institute was founded in 1978 by William Casey (CIA Director during the Reagan Administration) and British libertarian Antony Fisher. Its original name, changed in 1981, was the International Center for Economic Policy Studies. According to its website, the institute's primary function is "shaping American political culture and developing ideas that foster economic choice and individual responsibility." The Manhattan Institute motto is "turning intellect into influence." During the Bush Administration, the Manhattan Institute hosted important policy speeches by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The current Chairman, Paul E. Singer, is a founder of the multi-billion dollar hedge fund Elliott Associates. According to Paul Kiel of TPMMuckraker, Singer was a major financial backer of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential bid and a donor to the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. Also in 2004 Singer was a "Pioneer" bundler for George W. Bush, which means he raised at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign.
The Manhattan Institute promotes the right-wing agenda on a number of fronts. At the moment MI is actively working to scuttle the Employee Free Choice Act and protect corporations from legal liability via "tort reform," for example. These and other issues, including health care, are critical for people suffering asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma, for whom I work as an advocate. But they are critical to all of us as well.
MI probably is best known for its work in the area of race relations. MI and the American Enterprise Institute funded the "research" of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (an MI fellow at the time) that was published in 1994 in The Bell Curve, which argued that African Americans are inherently less intelligent than whites. Today, MI's Center for Race and Ethnicity maintains that shameful tradition through books and articles that argue for the dismantling of affirmative action and "safety nets" and which suggest racial and ethnic minorities could better succeed in America if they would act more like white people.
In the current issue of MI's City Journal, conservative writer Heather Mac Donald, a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argued that racial and ethnic minorities have only themselves to blame for discrimination. "Does it lie within the power of minorities to start achieving at higher rates by staying in school, studying harder, and paying more attention in class?" she asks.
The Manhattan Institute on Health Care
Through its Center for Medical Progress and website Medical Progress Today, the Institute promotes "consumer-driven" health care, a genuinely insane plan that would eliminate both government programs and employee-based benefits and place everyone at the mercy of the private insurance industry.
Manhattan Institute fellow Regina Herzlinger explained this proposal in the Washington Post last year. Demonstrating total oblivion to the concept of "risk pooling," she writes, "After all, how can Chrysler find a single health plan that works just as well for a 55-year-old diabetic with a bad back as it does for a 30-year-old triathlete who sees a doctor once every few years for a sprained ankle?"
The way it is supposed to work is that the 30-year-old triathlete's premium payments help pay for the 55-year-old diabetic's treatments. And then when the 30-year-old triathlete is older and sicker his insurance payments won't skyrocket, because healthy people are paying into the risk pool. This is how insurance works. (In truth, insurance companies make most of their money from investments, not from premiums, and one reason premiums are being jacked up at the moment is that insurance companies are losing money in investments, but that's another rant.)
Right now I don't want to launch into a comprehensive argument about why "consumer-driven" health care would not work in the real world. Note, however, most "consumer-driven" plans call for separating people into low-risk and high-risk pools so that healthier people can enjoy lower premiums or pay for their health care through Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which are something like 401Ks for medical expenses. This should work fine as long as your health problems don't involve big-ticket items like major surgery, chemotherapy or long-term rehabilitation, and as long as you have disposable income to save for health care needs. "Consumer-driven" health care proponents tend to be fuzzy about what happens to people who don't meet those criteria, however.
David Gratzer, Enemy of Reform