Everyone wants the media to "talk about the issues." But it's rare to see a reporter provide a deep and intricate dive into a particular issue or policy proposal with any degree of real expertise. Take the issue of health care. The press has typically tipped off the public to the facts that there are foundational differences between the health care policies of Barack Obama and John McCain. We're also made aware of the "Cliff's Notes" snapshot of each plan. Yet, in the debate the other day, each man said the other man's healthcare plan wouldn't work, to which the second responded to the first that it wasn't true. Wouldn't it be great if one could find out what everyone was talking about?
Over at Swampland, Ana Marie Cox has done what many of her commenters are calling a "public service," by subjecting John McCain's healthcare plan to up close, nuts and bolts scrutiny. Not from a reporter. Not from a campaign surrogate. But from an actuary. (Specifically, her father. A real live actuary.) In part, here's what Samuel H. Cox says about the plan:
Most Americans with health insurance get it through an employer and those folks are relatively happy with it. Employers are not happy with it generally and would like to get away from providing it. The government allows companies to deduct health care expenses from income and does not count the cost of health benefits as income to the employee. In effect it is a way of paying employees tax free income, as long as it goes to heath care. (Originally this was a way to work around the WWII freeze on ordinary wages.) McCain's proposal does away with this setup, making the heath care benefit taxable income. On average that is $12,000 per year for a family of four. If a family continues in an employer program it will pay an additional tax. If they are in the 25% bracket (say $75000 income) then they pay an additional $3000 in taxes. An individual in an employer plan with health benefits of about $6000 so will pay an additional $1500 in taxes.
McCain's proposal gives individuals a $2500 tax credit so the net for an individual is a tax credit of $1000. For a family with two persons filing, they get a tax credit of $5000, so get a net $2000 credit they can use to off set other taxes. (Actually it is not clear on this; maybe you do not get an offset.) So far it looks good for those who that already have health care through an employer. However, the costs are escalating faster than overall price inflation, so unless the tax credits are indexed to heath care costs, the advantage will disappear in a few years. While this aspect looks good now (for those who have and can continue with employer coverage), that may change without indexing. The proposal says nothing about indexing.
There's two takeaways from this analysis (and there's more to be had than just what I've cited...do indulge). First of all: when Obama says that McCain's plan extends a tax break with one hand and then takes it back with the other, this is technically true. BUT! At the same time, those who qualify for these tax break do, nevertheless, receive a net benefit in tax relief. BIGGER BUT! No one knows if these breaks and cuts and take-backs are indexed to future increases in health care costs. McCain is probably glossing over the fact that he knows this. Perhaps Obama isn't hitting McCain on this score because the math that underpins his own healthcare plan is similarly unindexed.
Actually, there's a third takeaway. Why can't there be more reporting like this? I'm not suggesting that we replace all the pretty political reporters with actuaries, but in looking over this health care issue, it seems we have a classic example of those who know more not telling, those who would tell more not knowing, and campaign press serving as stenographers for all the not-telling knowers and not-knowing tellers. If you read the post, you'll see that Samuel Cox is willing to provide a thorough disclaimer, attesting to both his expertise and his limitations. When was the last time a reporter took the time to stipulate to their precise expertise, or otherwise admit they don't know enough about a topic to discuss it (Ana Marie's own admission in this post is pretty unique in this regard. Must be a blogger thing.)
There are reporters out there who specialize in health care, who specialize in education, who specialize in regional foreign policy, technology, the environment. Their sort of reporting is not sexy or sensational and it doesn't speak to matters that the traditional media find important, like, for example: "YYYAGAGAGAAGHHH! BILL AYERS!!! BOOOOOGAAHHH!" But, don't you have a clearer idea about McCain's health care plan? Wouldn't you like the same sort of scrutiny applied to Obama's? Maybe it's time for some of the unsung experts to trade places with some of the campaign reporters we know and love. Hey! I know one guy who's ready to pack it in!