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On the Third Hand: Country Over Chess

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The great thing about the people who run and lobby for life and health insurers is that they are generally smart, reasonable people who may hold a particular position but can see everyone’s point of view.

A lot of them have come out of health care administration, the actuarial profession or sales.

People who administer organizations that provide health care certainly want to sustain the organizations financially, but they also very sincerely want to provide health care.

Actuaries very sincerely want the numbers to work.

Sales people have to understand why the nice men and women on the other side of the table aren’t buying, and, if possible, they would like to come up with proposals that resolve the objections and close deals.

For the most part, insurance people come out of flexible, reality-based operations, not operations that mimic “war by other means,” or 4-dimensional politicla chess, and involve wiping out the other side for the sheer abstract joy of wiping out the other side, even if wiping out the other side interferes with you accomplishing what you really want to accomplish.

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), Washington, for example, has always stood up for what it regards as being fair and flexible state and federal treatment of health plans, and it might define consumer protection differently than, say, the people who run the Commonwealth Fund, New York, but AHIP also seems to be very quick to acknowledge when it and the Commonwealth Fund have common ground and work with the Commonwealth Fund and similar organizations when that seems to make sense. If AHIP hates the proposal the other side has proposed, AHIP tries to come up with a proposal that has at least something in it that might appeal to fair-minded people on the other side. And perhaps that’s true in part because the people at the companies that belong to AHIP genuinely want most of the same things that the people who support the Commonwealth Fund want. They all want babies to live and bad germs to die.

The National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU), Washington, seems to hate the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 with quite a bit more open passion than AHIP does, but NAHU doesn’t seem to me to generally be trying to kill off the other side. It’s just trying to get Congress and regulators to adopt solution that fit better with what its members believe to be the right way to proceed.

It seems as if the members of the Super Committee in Washington that is supposed to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars in budget cut proposals by Wednesday are similarly intelligent, reasonable, rational, open-minded people.

But it also seems as if members of the Super Committee are surrounded by armies of strategists who have little to do with normal voters or normal corporate executives who think that compromise is akin to cannibalism and that the people on the other side are truly enemies, not just political opponents

On the left, we have “Democrats,” or Greens, or Wishfulthinkians, who stick their fingers in their ears, close their eyes and pretend that the budget deficit doesn’t matter, that the world will always — always! — pour money into backing our gamble on the belief that rising markets will eventually make all of our many public and private defined benefit health and retirement income programs whole. Because, we’re really nice, goshdarnit, and all of those people in China who buy our bonds really want Medicare to deliver to old people living in 2070 the benefits that we’ve promised to provide for those old people today. Because, of course, people in China have nothing better to do with their money than guarantee the benefits of Americans who will be old in 2070.

On the right, we have ordinary affluent people, who might, generally, make $300,000 per year, if that, who act as if the world would fall apart if any taxes imposed on people earning more than $250,000 per year went back to what they were in early 2001. I was a grownup in early 2001. I paid taxes in early 2001. And, as far as I recollect, the economy wasn’t that great in early 2001, but it wasn’t that bad. Rich people seemed to have food, clothes and cell phones that year. Even jewelry.

My guess is that raising taxes on the rich would lead to more direct and indirect costs than new revenue. But, if imposing a few mostly symbolic new taxes on the rich could help sober grownups get their hands back on the wheel over in the Democratic Party and win support for desperately needed entitlements spending reform, what’s the problem?

The problem is, of course, that absolutist strategists on the right who see all of this in abstract terms would like to keep the wildest, craziest, smelliest, Occupy Wall Street Democrats driving their party in cannabis-inspired zigzags down the political highway, to maximize the likelihood that the Republicans will win control over the White House and both branches of Congress in 2012.

And, of course, as people like Max Baucus tried to speak up for commonsense, all too many Democrats took a similar approach from 2004 to 2008.

I’m convinced that, if the people at AHIP, NAHU and other insurance groups had magic wands, they would try to support everyday political wellness. They would promote the idea that the country should be as sensibly governed as possible at all times, even if that might sometimes make members of a noxious party that happens to be in power look good.

I don’t think AHIP and NAHU would favor pushing the country into a state of civic liver failure every 4 years just to scare voters into voting in what they think is the right way.

Greece didn’t last forever, and Rome didn’t, either. There’s no guarantee that the country everyone is fighting over will continue to survive quadrennial civic liver failure. A party and the people and organizations that support that party might be better off having partial influence over the United States of America than stronger influence over the Republics of the Former United States that would emerge if the United States fell apart.

Correction: An earlier version of this article described NAHU’s location incorrectly. NAHU has moved to Washington.