Mexican Productivity and Poverty: a Superficial, Street-Level View

I just spent three and a half weeks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (summer 2019). Below are some impressions. First things first; I have to give you the severe limits of my field of vision while I was there.

My wife and I stayed in an old-fashioned, 1950s low-rise hotel on the ocean with a pleasant faded kind of glory. (My wife Krishna does not let me go to Mexico by myself, for obvious reasons!) It was very hot throughout so, we did not go out much except that we had to shop for food every day at the mall across a broad avenue. We took taxis to and from the dentist about fifteen times. I always chat with taxi drivers; they gave us the foundation of sociology, I am sure! We spent a little time in the old touristy market district (where we have friendly acquaintances from past visits). We also walked some on Puerto Vallarta’s beautiful and interesting seafront (the “malecon”). I speak Spanish well, I understand everything in the language; I read it with ease. I read the paper a few times; I watched the Spanish language news on television a few times. I read free brochures on this and that.

There is much to like in Mexico, and especially Mexicans. They are low-key, unexcitable, stoical cordial, affable, and eager to help, and not only vis-à-vis this pleasant, well-disposed gringo, myself. Living for a short time in pleasant, clean Puerto Vallarta, it’s difficult to remember that Mexico’s homicide rate is three times the US rate. It takes the occasional sighting of a truckful of the new, nattily dressed National Guard with automatic weapons to jog your memory. (See notes from a previous visit: “Mexicans in Mexico,” 2017, )

Low productivity

My main observation is a repeat from what I recounted the last time I was there (See my “Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology.”) It’s about productivity. For most of our stay, there was work going on on a brick path right beneath my windows. It was mind boggling. At one point, there were seven people working on the same two steps, including a master craftsman. They continued by restoring and cleaning a flat brick path. The thought stuck me that,in California, two, or two-and-a-half of the same Mexican workers (the very same guys) would have done the same work in the same time easily. And, yes, I know something about brick laying, both personally (I used to be very poor; now I am moderately poor), and as a customer. I am talking about a more than fifty per cent rise in productivity obtained by simply moving workers into a different environment. Bosses and economic leaders would easily kill for a change of such magnitude!

Of all the guys on the bricklaying and brick cleaning site, only one had a proper power tool, and it was only operational part of the time. The others labored by hand, mostly on their knees. No one had thought of giving them knee-guards. They had not themselves.

Moderate Poverty

The workers told me they were making about US$23 a day, or $115 for a forty-hour week. That’s not bad given that beginning professional positions – that require a university education – in thriving, manufacturing Monterrey are advertised for US$600 a month. Yet, and although most food, housing, gasoline, and health care are all cheaper in Mexico than in the US, this is still not much money on which to rear a family. But, this is also not dire poverty of the kind we used to see, and sometimes still find in India or in Africa. In that part of Mexico, everyone looks healthy, especially the children. Many adults are obese, more or less like in the US. Everyone is well dressed, by the admittedly low standards of central California where I live.

Over-staffing

Here is striking fact: Wherever you go, you find overstaffed shops, restaurants, etc, often very overstaffed. I mean like three shop attendants doing nothing in the middle of the afternoon. There must be a reasonable number of exceptions because my dentist’s office makes good use of its human resources. The same young women who serve as assistants, also act as receptionists. (I know, know, comparative advantage; don’t get me started, this is not the time or place.)

Productivity and Income

Over-staffing and the failure to provide workers with the best tools matter a great deal if you think, as I do, that incomes roughly follow productivity though often with big time lags, and often not in a linear fashion. Although employers sometimes fail to share the product of productivity gains with workers, the fact is that they cannot share gains that have not occurred. Low productivity pretty much guarantees low wages.

Note what I am not saying. The Mexican work ethic is not the problem. The guys who worked in the hot sun of tropical Mexico for eight hours a day don’t need lessons from anyone on that count. Also, those of us who live in California remember well the recession years when the vegetable picking lines remained nearly all-Mexican (with a handful of Filipinos) while poor Anglos lamented the absence of jobs. Now that wages in the field have increased substantially because of a chronic farm labor shortage, still few college students are flooding in, California sky-high rents or not.

Going back to fairly prosperous Puerto Vallarta, where construction is thriving (because of Canadian refugees from the cold, I am told), there is also the mysterious fact of the invisible zealot pounding stakes close to my hotel at 5:30 AM. I am not complaining. I respect this instance of unreasonable industriousness!

Social Structure and Productivity

Mexicans remain poor, the Mexican economy keeps growing but only slowly. This is, at least in part, I think, because Mexicans have normative standards that do not feed high productivity. These standard maintain a permanent social structure that makes increasing productivity difficult. A vicious/virtuous circle is at work. Labor is cheap because of its low productivity. It’s so cheap that, why not hire an additional worker for the same job? The incentive to hire nonchalantly is probably high because of Mexicans’ high connectivity. Mexicans, even in a fairly new city like Puerto Vallarta appear much more interconnected than Californians. (I don’t know much about the East Coast of the US.) There are many more individuals in one’s life there to please by giving their relatives and liege a job than is the case where I live.

Take the lifelong relationship of “compadre” and “comadre” between adults who are usually not kin to each other. The titles denote the link between a man and a woman who are respectively godfather and godmother to the same child. It easily multiplies by two or three beyond actual relatives the circle of individuals to whom one is to some extent obligated. And, it does not end there. Why, there is even a word in Mexican Spanish to denote the relationship of two people who have the same first name! I forgot the word but I was charmed to discover that I was ##### to any number of “Diegos.” I can even imagine situations where someone would succeed in using that tenuous link to extract a small favor from me (with a probable intention to reciprocate).

High Connectivity not a Specific Feature of Mexico, and Over-Staffing

I don’t think this high connectivity is an idiosyncratic feature of Mexican society. I believe rather that something similar prevails in India (that I know a little). It seems to me that high connectivity was visible also, in rural Brittany when I was a child in the forties and fifties. It was largely absent in Paris by contrast where I lived most of the time (Order my book of socio-historical memoirs of that period: I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography; avoid the middle person, go through me.). Having obligations to few rather than to many is a salient feature of modernity (that includes also urbanization, small nuclear families, and a search for formal education).

I speculate that Mexicans, even in comparatively modern places like Puerto Vallarta, have a high tolerance for over-staffing because of the large social networks within which they exist. Over-staffing is thus a primary contributor to low productivity. Low productivity keeps many people poor. Poor people need a supportive network more than do the more prosperous. Long and short of it: to break the cycle would require a degree of de-humanization of Mexican society. It’s not inexorable. Mexicans may collectively choose a bearable level of poverty (see life expectancy below) over the destruction of the emotional comfort larger social networks promote.

Not Following in the Footsteps….

It seems to me that a high degree of familiarity with the negative example of American society next door with its low connectivity – in places – may guide them toward such a choice. In point of fact, I have met a strikingly large number of Mexican men who had worked in the US for several years and who had returned home under their own power, by choice, according to their narratives. (I also note with satisfaction that ten years ago, S. Nikiforov and I had evoked precisely that sort of preference in a big article on Mexican immigration: “If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely,” in The Independent Review, 14-1: 101-133 [Summer] 2009.)

There is no law of nature that requires the people of less developed countries to retrace all the steps of their predecessors in development. The cellphone shows us that often, they don’t have to: Several African countries have phone landlines only in the center of their major city but 80% of their population has access to a cellphone. Trying to skip stages is the rational thing to do, of course. I would guess it’s most successful when it depends largely on a myriad of individual decisions, as with cellphones. Nevertheless, it seems to work pretty well – for some reason – even with collective decisions regarding health care, specifically.

Perhaps, societies can pick and choose what features of modernity they actually want thanks to a density of available information and a richness in inter-communications that was unimaginable forty years ago. (That was when I was studying underdevelopment with rigorous methods.) I can picture a partial national consensus forming that says, “We don’t need everything the big guys have; a little bit more of this and of that, and we are OK.” If this scenario is realistic, food, schooling, and health care will probably be its dominant themes. The Mexican food situation appears fine (I will consider contradiction on this.). In my subjective judgment, based on its products, on the average, Mexican K-12 is superior to its American public counterpart.

Illness and Health care

One component of socio-economic underdevelopment and also an obstacle to development in its own right used to be widespread illness. The morbidity figures I saw in the seventies about the situation in the fifties were horrifying. Illness also obstructed development indirectly because it destroyed family units through the death of parents or older siblings, even of aunts and uncles who might have provided. This is largely in the past. The present in poor countries is very different, greatly improved from the narrow standpoint of health. And, it turns out, the Mexican health picture, in particular appears fairly bright.

Single Payer Health Care

Something to think about for my conservative friends: Mexico has single payer healthcare for those who want it. It has a pretty poor reputation, it’s true. A private health network subsists side-by-side with it for the prosperous. (I like that.) Yet, yet, the life expectancy of Mexicans is only 2.6 years lower than that of Americans, same as the difference between the US and the Netherlands (WHO 2015, in Wikipedia). Americans live longer than Mexicans in the same proportion as the Dutch live longer than Americans. So, either, it’s possible to get fairly similar results health-wise at much lower cost than do Americans, or health care does not matter all that much, as far as not dying is concerned. (Hate to twist the knife in the conservative wound but the Dutch also spend much less money than Americans on their health care.)

Incidentally, I am well aware that there are non-economic arguments against entrusting what is now 17% of the US GDP to the government, to any government. But, perhaps, conservatives should restrict themselves to combating govt. health care on political and principle grounds alone. (End of digression.)

Where To?

So, where am I going with this, you may fairly ask? I am expressing my doubts that Mexican society – and other less developed societies – will be forced to undergo the dislocating social change that would be required to improve much its (their) productivity, according to the old schemes. I have to stop here, more or less, but it seems to me that Mexico is more likely to improve first its societal-level productivity by having more women join the work force. The preservation of a high existing level of connectivity – with its baked-in child care and food services – would ease, and facilitate such mass social change, of course.

The 2020 Dems

The two Democratic presidential debates were performed against a broad background of consecrated untruths and the debates gave them new life. Mostly, I don’t use the word “lies” because pseudo-facts eventually become facts in the mind of those who hear them repeated many times. And, to lie, you have to know that what you are saying isn’t true. Also, it seems to me that most of the candidates are more like my B- undergraduates than like A students. They lack the criticality to separate the superficially plausible from the true. Or, they don’t care.

So, it’s hard to tell who really believes the untruths below and who just let’s them pass for a variety of reasons, none of which speaks well of their intellectual integrity. There are also some down-and-out lies that none of the candidates has denounced, even ever so softly. Here is a medley of untruths.

Untruths and lies

I begin with a theme that’s not obviously an untruth, just very questionable. Economic inequality is rising in America or, (alt.) it has reached a new high point. I could easily use official data to demonstrate either. I could also – I am confident – use official figures to show that it’s shrinking or at a new low. Why do we care anyway? There may be good reasons. The Dems should give them. Otherwise, it’s the same old politics of envy. Boring!

Women need equal pay for equal work finally. But it’s been the law of the land for about forty years. Any company that does not obey that particular law is asking for a vast class action suit. Where are the class action suits?

What do you call a “half-truth” that’s only 10% true? Continue reading

The Real Cost of National Health Care

Around early August 2018, a research paper from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University by Charles Blahous made both the Wall Street Journal and Fox News within two days. It also attracted attention widely in other media. Later, I thought I heard sighs of satisfaction from conservative callers on talk show radio whenever the paper came up.

One figure from the study came and stayed at the surface and was quoted correctly many times (rare occurrence) in the electronic media. The cost of what Senator Sanders proposed with respect to national health care was:

30 trillion US dollars over ten years (actually, 32.6 over thirteen years).

This enormous number elicited pleasure among conservatives because it seemed to underscore the folly of Senator Bernie Sanders’ call for universal healthcare. It meant implicitly, federal, single-payer, government-organized health care. It might be achieved simply by enrolling everyone in Medicare. I thought I could hear snickers of relief among my conservative friends because of the seeming absurdity of the gigantic figure. I believe that’s premature. Large numbers aren’t always all they appear to be.

Let’s divide equally the total estimate over ten years. That’s three trillion dollars per year. It’s also a little more than $10,000 per American man, woman, child, and others, etc.

For the first year of the plan, Sanders’ universal health care amounts to 17.5% of GDP per capita. GDP per capita is a poor but not so bad, really, measure of production. It’s also used to express average gross income. (I think that those who criticize this use of GDP per capita don’t have a substitute to propose that normal human beings understand, or wish to understand.) So it’s 17.5% of GDP/capita. The person who is exactly in the middle of the distribution of American income would have to spend 17.5% of her income on health care, income before taxes and such. That’s a lot of money.

Or, is it?

Let’s imagine economic growth (GDP growth) of 3% per years. It’s optimistic but it’s what conservatives like me think is a realistic target for sustained performance. From 1950 to 1990, GDP per capita growth reached or exceeded 3% for almost all years. It greatly exceeded 3% for several years. I am too lazy to do the arithmetic but I would be bet that the mean annual GDP growth for that forty-year period was well above 3%. So, it’s realistic and probably even modest.

At this 3% growth rate, in the tenth year, the US GDP per capita will be $76.600. At that point, federal universal health care will cost – unless it improves and thus becomes more costly – 13% of GDP per capita. This sounds downright reasonable, especially in view of the rapid aging of the American population.

Now, American conservative enemies of nationalized health care are quick to find instances of dysfunctions of such healthcare delivery systems in other countries. The UK system was the original example and as such, it accumulated mistakes. More recently, we have delighted in Canadian citizens crossing the border for an urgent heart operation their nationalized system could not produce for months: Arrive on Friday evening in a pleasant American resort. Have a good but reasonable dinner. Check in Sat morning. Get the new valve on Monday; back to Canada on Wednesday. At work on the next Monday morning!

The subtext is that many Canadians die because of a shortage of that great free health care: It nice if you can get it, we think. Of course, ragging on the Canadians is both fair and endlessly pleasant. Their unfailing smugness in such matters is like a hunting permit for mental cruelty!

In fact, though, my fellow conservatives don’t seem to make much of an effort to find national health systems that actually work. Sweden has one, Denmark has one; I think Finland has one; I suspect Germany has one. Closer to home, for me, at least, France has one. Now, those who read my blogging know that I am not especially pro-French or pro-France. But I can testify to a fair extent that the French National Healthcare works well. I have used it several times across the past fifty years. I have observed it closely on the occasion of my mother’s slow death.

The French national health system is friendly, almost leisurely, and prompt in giving you appointments including to specialists. It tends to be very thorough to the point of excessive generosity, perhaps. Yes, but you get what you pay for, I can hear you thinking – just like a chronically pessimistic liberal would. Well, actually, Frenchmen live at least three years longer on the average than do American men. And French women live even longer. (About the same as Canadians, incidentally.)

Now, the underlying reasoning is a bit tricky here. I am not stating that French people live longer than Americans because the French national healthcare delivery system is so superior. I am telling you that whatever may be wrong with the French system that escaped my attention is not so bad that it prevents the French from enjoying superior longevity. I don’t want to get here into esoteric considerations of the French lifestyle. And, no, I don’t believe it’s the red wine. The link between drinking red wine daily and cardiac good health is in the same category as Sasquatch: I dearly hope it exists but I am pretty sure it does not. So, I just wish to let you know that I am not crediting French health care out of turn.

The weak side of the French system is that it remunerates doctors rather poorly, from what I hear. I doubt French pediatricians earn $222,000 on the average. (Figure for American pediatricians according to the Wall Street Journal 8/17/18.) But I believe in market processes. France the country has zero trouble finding qualified candidates for its medical schools. (I sure hope none of my current doctors, whom I like without exception, will read this. The wrong pill can so easily happen!)

By the way, I almost forgot to tell you. Total French health care expenditure per person is only about half as high as the American. Rule of thumb: Everything is cheaper in the US than in other developed countries, except health care.

And then, closer to home, there is a government health program that covers (incompletely) about 55 million Americans. It’s not really “universal” even for the age group it targets because one must have contributed to benefit. (Same in France, by the way, at least in principle.) It’s universal in the sense that everyone over 65 who has contributed qualifies. It’s not a charity endeavor. Medicare often slips the minds of critical American conservatives, I suspect, I am guessing, because there are few complaints about it.

That’s unlike the case for another federal health program, for example the Veterans’, which is scandal-ridden and badly run. It’s also unlike Medicaid, which has the reputation of being rife with financial abuse. It’s unlike the federally run Indian Health Service that is on the verge of being closed for systemic incompetence.

I suspect Medicare works well because of a large number of watchful beneficiaries who belong to the age group in which people vote a great deal. My wife and I are both on Medicare. We wish it would cover us 100%, although we are both conservatives, of course! Other than that, we have no complaints at all.

Sorry for the seeming betrayal, fellow conservatives! Is this a call for universal federal health care in America? It’s not, for two reasons. First, every country with a good national health system also has an excellent national civil service, France, in particular. I have no confidence, less than ever in 2018, that the US can achieve the level of civil service quality required. (Less in 2018 because of impressive evidence of corruption in the FBI and in the Justice Department, after the Internal Revenue Service).

Secondly, when small government conservatives (a redundancy, I know) attempt to promote their ideas for good government primarily on the basis of practical considerations, they almost always fail. Ours is a political and a moral posture. We must first present our preferences accordingly rather than appeal to practicality. We should not adopt a system of health delivery that will, in ten years, attribute the management of 13% of our national income to the federal government because it’s not infinitely trustworthy. We cannot encourage the creation of a huge category of new federal serfs (especially of well-paid serfs) who are likely forever to constitute a pro-government party. We cannot, however indirectly, give the government most removed from us, a right of life and death without due process.

That simple. Arguing this position looks like heavy lifting, I know, but look at the alternative.

PS I like George Mason University, a high ranking institution of higher learning that gives a rare home to conservative American scholars, and I like its Mercatus Center that keeps producing high-level research that is also practical.

Life expectancy at birth is not a predictor of health care efficiency…

This is going to be a short post to argue that pundits (and some economists) need to stop quoting life expectancy figures to argue for/against a particular health care system. This belief is best exemplified in a recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association where Papanicolas et al. (2018)  point out that the United States “spent nearly twice as much as 10 high-income countries (…) and performed less well on many population health outcomes”. While the authors make good points about administrative costs, they point out that the US has a low level of life expectancy.

Sure, that is actually true – but Americans tend to die in greater proportions from homicides, drug overdoses and car accidents (Americans drive more than Europeans) than in other rich countries. While these factors of mortality are tragic (except car accidents since Americans seem to prefer the benefits of mobility to the safety of not driving), they are in no way related to the efficiency of health care provision. How much of a deal are these in explaining differences with other industrialized countries? A pretty big deal.  For example, these three factors alone account for 64% of the male life expectancy gap between Austria and the United States (see table reproduced below). For women, 26% of the gap between Austria and the United States is explained by these three factors.

The study I cite here only includes three factors. If you add in other factors like drownings among youths (Americans tend to have more drownings than several industrialized countries) which is a result of the fact that Americans are richer and can afford pools (while Europeans tend not to), then you keep explaining away the difference.  This is not to say that American health care is great. However, this says that American health care is not as bad as life expectancy outcomes suggest.

Mortality

 

In health care, expenditures to GDP may be misleading!

In debates over health care reform in the US, it is frequent for Canada’s name to pop up in order to signal that Canada is spending much less of its GDP to health care and seems to generate relatively comparable outcomes. I disagree.

Its not that the system presently in place in the US is so great, its that the measure of resources expended on each system is really bad. In fact, its a matter of simple economics.  Imagine two areas (1 and 2), the first has single-payer health care, the other has fully-private health care.

In area 2, prices ration access to health care so that people eschew visits to the emergency room as a result of a scraped elbow. In area 1, free access means no rationing through price and more services are consumed. However, to avoid overspending, the government of area 1 has waiting lists or other rationing schemes. In area 2, which I have presented as an ideal free market for the sake of conversation,  whatever people expend can be divided over GDP and we get an accurate portrait of “costs”. However, in area 1, costs are borne differently – through taxes and through waiting times. As such, comparing what is spent in area 1 to what is spent in area 2 is a flawed comparison.

So when we say that Canada spends 10.7% of GDP on health care (2013 numbers) versus 17.1% of GDP in the US, is it a viable comparison? Not really.  In 2008, the Canadian Medical Association produced a study evaluating the cost of waiting times for four key procedures : total joint replacement surgery, cataract surgery, coronary artery bypass
graft (CABG) and MRI scans. These procedures are by no means exhaustive and they concern only “excessive” waiting times (rather than the whole waiting times or at least the difference with the United States). However, the CMA found that, for the 2007 (the year they studied), the cost of waiting was equal to 14.8$ billion (CAD).  Given the size of the economy back in 2007, this represented 1.3% of GDP. Again, I must emphasize that this is not an exhaustive measure of the cost of waiting times. However, it does bring Canada closer to the United States in terms of the “true cost” of health care.  Any estimate that would include other wait times would increase that proportion.

I know that policy experts are aware of that, but it is so frequent to see comparisons based on spending to GDP in order to argue for X and Y policy as being relatively cheap.  I just thought it was necessary to remind some people (those who decide to read me) that prudence is mandatory here.

Some ideas to guide your thoughts on health care

This post is meant to help my non-economist friends think more clearly about how we pay for health care. I’ll talk about markets, but the truth is that the American system is built of deeply bastardized markets. If our car markets worked like our health markets, most of us would walk to work. I’m trying to focus on the essential logic of the situation which is going to sound Utopian because Congress isn’t going to give us any sort of logical policy any time soon. But we aren’t going to get a logical solution until we as voters understand the logic of health care finance.

I’ve got a few big points to make:

  1. Trying to health insurance also work like charity is bound to end poorly for everyone.
  2. A single-payer system has a lot of nice features for individuals, but a lot of systemic problems.
  3. It’s fundamentally impossible to insure pre-existing conditions. Insurance is about sharing risk, not unavoidable expenses.

(This post is longer than I’d like, so thanks for your patience!)

Markets and Charity

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we don’t have to ruin markets to do charity.

The essence of markets is that they aggregate knowledge about the relative costs and benefits of different goods based on the preferences of the real people involved in producing and consuming those goods.

The demand side of markets provide information by giving you (as a consumer) a choice between more of something you like and more money to spend on other stuff. On the supply side they give you (as a supplier–probably of your own labor) the choice between providing more of what people are willing to pay for or having less money to buy the stuff you want. Markets crowdsource cost-benefit analysis.

Prices also give suppliers an incentive to produce things that consumers want while trying to save resources (i.e. cut costs). In other words, a price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive.

So what about fairness? The bad news is that markets are a system of “from each according to their ability, to each according to how much other people are willing to pay for the product of their ability.” (Not very catchy!) It’s mostly fair for most of us, but doesn’t do much good for people who are just unlucky (e.g. kids born with genetic defects). Here’s the good news: we can use charity alongside markets.

We can debate how much role government should play in charity some other time. For now, let’s whole-ass one thing instead of half-assing two things. We have to appreciate that interfering with markets interferes with the ability of those markets to function as sources of reliable information. It doesn’t matter how good our intentions are, we face a trade off here… unless we do something to establish a functioning charity system parallel to the health care finance system.

Single Payer

Anecdotes about the merits of a single-payer health care system are powerful because they shed light on the biggest benefit to such a system: individual convenience.

Part of the appeal has to do with the general screwiness of the American system. It’s a cathedral built of band-aids. But even in an idealized market system, a single-payer system has the advantage of not making me go through the work of evaluating which plan best suits my needs.

A single-payer system is, from an individual perspective, about as ideal as having your parents pay for it. But we don’t really  want our parents buying our stuff for us.

Single payer system sacrifice the informational value of markets (probably even more so than America’s current system of quasi-price controls). Innovation would be harder as long as new treatments had to be approved by risk-averse bureaucrats (and again, we already face a version of this with Medicare billing codes and insurance companies).

Essentially, a single payer system creates a common pool problem: each of us gets the individual benefit of being able to be lazy. But then we’re left trusting bureaucrats, special interest groups, and think tanks to keep an eye on things. It could be an improvement over the current American system, but that’s like saying amputation is better than gangrene.

Insurance

Premium = expected cost + overhead

Consider two alternatives. In scenario A you start with $150, flip a coin, and if it comes up tails you lose $100. In scenario B you get $90. The expected value of A is $100, but most of us would still prefer the sure thing.

Here’s how insurance works: You start with $150, give $60 to the insurance company, then flip the coin. If it comes up tails, you lose $100, but the insurance company gives you back $40. You’ve just gotten the sure thing. And by taking on thousands of these bets the insurance company is able to make enough money to pay their employees.

But here’s the thing: the premium they charge is fundamentally tied to that expected value. Change the odds, or the costs (i.e. the claims they have to pay for) and you’ll change the premium.

(BTW, Tim Harford did a nice ~8 minute podcast episode on insurance that’s worth checking out.)

Pre-existing conditions are the equivalent of changing our thought experiment to a 100% chance of flipping tails. No amount of risk sharing that will get you to the $90 outcome you want. You can’t insure your car after you’ve been in an accident and you can’t insure a person against a loss they’ve already realized. If you’re Bill Gates, that’s no big deal, but for many people, this might mean depending on charity. That’s a bummer, but wishful thinking can’t undo that.

If we insist that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions* the result can only be higher premiums. This is nice for people with these pre-existing conditions, but not so great for (currently) healthy poor people. Again, charity matters needs to be part of the debate, but it needs to be parallel to insurance markets.

Covering more contingencies also affects premiums. The more things a policy covers, the higher the expected cost, and therefore the higher the premium. We each have to decide what things are worth insuring and what risks we’re willing to face ourselves. Politics might not be the best way to navigate those choices.

High deductibles and catastrophic care

Actuaries think about the cost of insuring as a marginal cost. In other words, they know that the odds that you spend $100 in a year are much higher than the odds that you spend $1000. So the cost of insuring the first dollar of coverage is much higher than the cost of insuring the 5000th dollar. This is why high deductible plans are so much cheaper… they only pay out in the unlikely situation where something catastrophically bad happens to you. This is exactly why most of us want insurance. We aren’t afraid of the cost of band-aids and aspirin, we’re afraid of the cost of cancer treatment.

For those of us firmly in the middle class, what we really need is a high-deductible plan plus some money in the bank to cover routine care and smaller emergencies. (Personally, my version of this is a credit card.) Such a plan has the added benefit of encouraging us to be more cost conscious.

A big problem with our current system is that it’s set up like an all-you-can-eat buffet. You pay to get in (your premiums) but once you’re in the hospital, any expenses are the insurance company’s problem (read: everyone else on your health plan). The logic here is the same as with pollution. When I drive my car I get the benefits of a quick and comfortable commute but I also suffer a little bit more pollution. But I don’t have incentive to think about how that pollution affects you so I pollute more than would be ideal. Multiply that by millions of people and we can end up with smog.

tl;dr

If I were trying to put together a politically palatable alternative to our current system, I’d have an individual mandate with insurance vouchers for the poor (it’s not very libertarian, and it’s far from my Utopian ideal, but I think it would be a huge improvement over what we’ve got now). I would also expand the role of market competition by encouraging high deductibles plus flexible health savings accounts.

Reality is complicated, but I’m trying to get at the fundamental logic here. We don’t have a properly functioning market system. To get there we need competition, transparency, and a populace with the mental tools and mathematical literacy necessary to understand what their insurance can and can’t do. That’s a tall order, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to move in that direction.

To have a fruitful debate we need to understand what we want from our healthcare system: help for the poor (charity), convenience, and efficiency from an individual and social perspective. By trying to lump all these things together we muddy the waters and make it harder to understand one another.


*I don’t know what the deal is with the idea that the AHCA will treat rape as a pre-existing condition. Some webpages give a bunch of random tweets as evidence of this, and others call bullshit. Let’s just leave it at this: in a competitive market this would be considered terrible marketing and savvy companies wouldn’t do it. The lesson then is to keep calling companies on bad marketing, and avoid protecting politically powerful companies from market competition.

On the paradox of poverty and good health in Cuba

One of the most interesting (in my opinion) paradox in modern policy debates relates to how Cuba, a very poor country, has been able to generate health outcomes close to the levels observed in rich countries. To be fair, academics have long known that there is only an imperfect relation between material living standards and biological living standards (full disclosure: I am inclined to agree, but with important caveats better discussed in a future post or article, but there is an example). The problem is that Cuba is really an outlier. I mean, according to the WHO statistics, its pretty close to the United States in spite of being far poorer.

In the wake of Castro’s death, I believed it necessary to assess why Cuba is an outlier and creates this apparent paradox. As such, I decided to move some other projects aside for the purposes of understanding Cuban economic history and I have recently finalized the working paper (which I am about to submit) on this paradox (paper here at SSRN).

The working paper, written with physician Gilbert Berdine (a pneumologist from Texas Tech University), makes four key arguments to explain why Cuba is an outlier (that we ought not try to replicate).

The level of health outcomes is overestimated, but the improvements are real

 Incentives matter, even in the construction of statistics and this is why we should be skeptical. Indeed, doctors are working under centrally designed targets of infant mortality that they must achieve and there are penalties if the targets are not reached. As such, physicians respond rationally and they use complex stratagems to reduce their reported levels. This includes the re-categorization of early neonatal deaths as late fetal deaths which deflates the infant mortality rate and the pressuring (sometimes coercing) of mothers with risky pregnancies to abort in order to avoid missing their targets. This overstates the level of health outcomes in Cuba since accounting for reclassification of deaths and a hypothetically low proportions of pressured/coerced abortions reduces Cuban life expectancy by close to two years (see figure below). Nonetheless, the improvements in Cuba since 1959 are real and impressive – this cannot be negated.

Cuba1.png

 

Health Outcomes Result from Coercive Policy 

Many experts believe that we ought to try to achieve the levels of health outcomes generated by Cuba and resist the violations of human rights that are associated with the ruling regime. The problem is that they cannot be separated. It this through the use of coercive policy that the regime is able to allocate more than 10% of its tiny GDP to health care and close to 1% of its population to the task of being a physician. It ought also be mentioned that physicians in Cuba are also mandated to violate patient privacy and report information to the regime. Consequently, Cuban physicians (who are also members of the military) are the first line of internal defense of the regime. The use of extreme coercive measures has the effect of improving health outcomes, but it comes at the price of economic growth. As documented by Werner Troesken, there are always institutional trade-offs in term of health care. Either you adopt policies that promote growth but may hinder the adoption of certain public health measures or you adopt these measures at the price of growth. The difference between the two choices is that economic growth bears fruit in the distant future (i.e. there are palliative health effects of economic growth that take more time to materialize).

Health Outcomes are Accidents of Non-Health Related Policies

As part of the institutional trade-off that make Cubans poorer, there might be some unintended positive health-effects. Indeed, the rationing of some items does limit the ability of the population to consume items deleterious to their health. The restrictions on car ownership and imports (which have Cuba one of the Latin American countries with the lowest rate of car ownership) also reduces mortality from road accidents which,  in countries like Brazil, knock off 0.8 years of life expectancy at birth for men and 0.2 years for women.  The policies that generate these outcomes are macroeconomic policies (which impose strict controls on the economy) unrelated to the Cuban health care system. As such, the poverty caused by Cuban institutions  may also be helping Cuban live longer.

Human Development is not a Basic Needs Measure

The last point in the paper is that human development requires agency.  Since life expectancy at birth is one of the components of the Human Development Indexes (HDI),  Cuba fares very well on that front. The problem is that the philosophy between HDIs is that individual must have the ability to exercise agency. It is not a measure of poverty nor a measure of basic needs, it is a measure meant to capture how well can individual can exercise free will: higher incomes buy you some abilities, health provides you the ability to achieve them and education empowers you.

You cannot judge a country with “unfree” institutions with such a measure. You need to compare it with other countries, especially countries where there are fewer legal barriers to human agency. The problem is that within Latin America, it is hard to find such countries, but what happens when we compare with the four leading countries in terms of economic freedom. What happens to them? Well, not only do they often beat Cuba, but they have actually come from further back and as such they have seen much larger improvements that Cuba did.

This is not to say that these countries are to be imitated, but they are marginal improvements relative to Cuba and because they have freer institutions than Cuba, they have been able to generate more “human development” than Cuba did.

Cuba2.png

Our Conclusion

Our interpretation of Cuban health care provision and health outcomes can be illustrated by an analogy with an orchard. The fruit of positive health outcomes from the “coercive institutional tree” that Cuba has planted can only be picked once, and the tree depletes the soil significantly in terms of human agency and personal freedom. The “human development tree” nurtured in other countries yields more fruit, and it promises to keep yielding fruit in the future. Any praise of Cuba’s health policy should be examined within this broader institutional perspective.