The Fix Is In

By Bill Maher

I’ve said it before, but I have to say it again: there’s nothing Americans love more than big government. Look at any poll, and the last things they want to cut are Medicare and Social Security. Ask if they want to cut social welfare programs and they scream, “Absolutely!” Name the social welfare program, and they scream, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”  

So who’s telling them they have to cut these beloved programs? A coalition of 95 companies that calls itself “Fix the Debt.

According to Public Campaign, a non-profit campaign reform organization, 22 of these companies have spent more on lobbying in the past three years than they’ve paid in taxes, and they almost all get more money from government tax rebates than they put in.

Some of the most profitable corporations in human history are involved with this initiative, including GE, Bank of America, Boeing, Dow Chemical, and Honeywell International. If these corporations feel so patriotically obligated to help America out with its debt problem, why don’t they start by paying their taxes?

The goal of “Fix the Debt” isn’t just to cut entitlements; it’s “corporate tax reform” that exempts U.S. companies from having to ever pay a dime of taxes on offshore income. Also investing in “Fix the Debt” are a bunch of Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and BlackRock Advisors that I’m sure would love nothing more than to see public money that goes to Medicare and Social Security privatized so they could get their cut.  

I think what’s going on here is a perfect example of The Shock Doctrine. That’s the Naomi Klein theory that says after great crises strike, profiteers come in strong to institute misguided and unpopular right-wing policies. For instance, the response to 9/11 was the Iraq War.

The actual crisis being used by Fix the Debt is the Great Recession. The wars and the Bush tax cuts are partly to blame for ballooning deficits, but the biggest driver is lower tax revenue because of the economic crash. Now the big companies that largely caused that crash are trying to capitalize on it by, once again, lowering their own taxes, and get their hands in the cookie jar of these popular public programs.

Of course, there is a real long-term debt problem (although, most economists agree, not much of a short-term or medium-term one). But it has to do with rising health care costs for an aging population, and there are two obvious responses to it.

One has already happened: Obamacare. Over the past few years, the growth in health care costs has slowed to a 52-year low. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is now projecting that we’ll spend about $500 billion less on Medicare over the next ten years than they thought just a few months ago. Nobody saw this coming, and it’s such an inconvenient fact for the Fix the Debt Chicken Littles that they’ve chosen to completely ignore it.

Nobody knows for sure why the rate of growth has slowed like this, but one strong possibility is that just the threat of some of the cost containment in Obamacare is having its desired effect.   

The other response is hinted at in this week’s Time, in which reporter Steve Brill starts going through people’s hospital bills line by line and finding incredible things. For instance, one hospital charges $18 for a diabetes test strip when you can get them on Amazon for 55 cents. Another charges 24 bucks for a tablet of Niacin, which drug stores sell for a nickel. Another bills $77 for a box of gauze. And at one hospital, doctors are now charging up to a thousand dollars for a private lap dance. At least I was told it was a hospital.

If we really want to “fix the debt” without cutting these big government programs no one wants to cut, we have to start doing what other modern countries do and outlaw this form of price gouging. It’s called rate-setting, and it’s very popular in the rest of the civilized world. Hospitals will hate it, but we just have to maintain the political will to tell them to fuck off.

There. Long-term debt problem solved. Now hand me my Nobel.