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Friday, August 14, 2009

Nothing's Worse Than a Good Idea

I heard this story on NPR as I made my way to band practice last night. I think it illustrates as well as anything my reservations about Obamacare. I know they don't seem related, California's prisons and their problems, and healthcare in America. But bear with me.

The long and short of it, if you don't want to listen to the clip: California once had a famously successful prison system. Low levels of inmate violence, lots of re-education and vocational training, and a low recidivism rate. They seemed to actually have the knack for rehabilitating offenders.

Fast forward a few decades and they are overcrowded, with a huge budget that strains to even maintain the basics of holding the doors closed and the walls up, and they have more repeat customers than any state in the country.

A lot of the blame, as the story unfolds, lies with that potent cocktail of inefficiency, a powerful union mixed with a government bureaucracy. The correctional officers' union had 2600 members making around $15,000 a year in 1980 and today boasts 45,000 members, many earning over $100,000 (which, even adjusted for inflation and an expensive state to live in, is a bit of a bump).

The union, it seems, has been active in lobbying and campaigning for such apparently good ideas as California's Three Strikes law. Laws that make people feel good because they're obviously 'tough on crime,' but which have the side effect of requiring an ever larger prison industrial complex. Of course the union denies there is any ulterior motive, and I give credit to NPR for asking tough questions such as 'Why are correctional officers union is involved in victims' rights at all all?'

The story includes heartbreaking details. There's a braille translation training program that not only provides the blind with reading material, but it's so successful that nobody who's gone through it has ever returned to prison. So how many slots are allotted for this ridiculously effective program? With a $10 Billion budget, they have all of 27 inmates in the braille program.

So, this is about healthcare, right? Three strikes and you're out is obviously a good idea. Who wants three time felons getting out to offend again? Mandatory sentences protect the public from lenient judges. But these obviously 'good' ideas aren't nearly as good as making the necessary efforts to make sure that first strike is the last one most of the time.

The idea that everyone should get the healthcare they need in the wealthiest country on earth is a good one, too. Double digit inflation in this sector of the economy is beyond bad. But much of that inflation is a direct result of the federal government's intrusion. Obamacare is like trying to put the fire out with gasoline.

The federal government is not the only culprit to our healthcare problems, but there isn't an area where it is a net positive. Anytime you concentrate decision-making, you'll draw powerful vested interests who will steer things their own way. To pretend otherwise is like arguing with weather.

Good ideas and politics don't mix. You don't need death panels to see that the 'overhaul' of healthcare being shoved down our throats and up our asses is a lot of well-intended bullshit about as helpful as a roadside bomb.

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