Obama campaign v. Krugman

Obama’s position on health-insurance mandates is defensible. His campaign’s attack on Paul Krugman was a mistake. Time for an apology.

All campaigns make mistakes. Barack Obama’s campaign just made a doozy, going after Paul Krugman for Krugman’s criticism of Obama’s omission of a mandate from his health insurance plan.

On the substance, I think Obama has a reasonable case to make. A mandate sounds like a good idea until you think about how to enforce it. If John Edwards were to be the nominee, his proposal for punitive enforcement would make a great talking point for his opponent. Hillary Clinton’s plan includes a mandate, but says nothing about how it would be enforced: again, a lacuna her opponent in November would be unlikely to leave unexploited. Since Obama isn’t willing to come out for an enforceable mandate, I think his decision to make his plan explicitly voluntary is more honest than HRC’s decision to make her plan nominally manatory without explaining how to make the mandate real.

On the other hand, I agree with Krugman that if we’re going to have a health plan based on private insurance rather than a tax-based single-payer system, it’s going to have to be mandatory in order to avoid adverse selection: the deicison by young health people to go uninsured and rely on the fact that they can sign up for health insurance after they get sick. So Obama isn’t doing the next Democratic President, whoever it turns out to be, any favors by denouncing a feature that will eventually have to be included in any sensible national health insurance scheme.

In any case, it’s pointless for his campaign to publish “oppo research” on Krugman, who has certainly earned himself some slack by his brave and lonely opposition to All Things Bush since before the 2000 election.

The right move now on Obama’s part seems obvious: He ought to pick up the phone, call Krugman, and apologize, and publicly say that he has instructed the campaign staff not to pull any such stunt in the future. “Always do right,” said Mark Twain. “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com