Health costs hurt incomes in Bush years

Commentator David Frum.


Kai Ryssdal: Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said yesterday the recession's technically over already. The way these things work, it's going to take another six or eight months before we know officially that that's the case. And it's going to be years before we really know whether President Obama handled the economy the right way. Same thing is true for the Bush administration. And commentator David Frum doesn't really like the former president's chances.

DAVID FRUM: Last week, the Census bureau delivered its report on American incomes in 2008. We can put this report together with the seven previous to reach a final verdict on the economic record of President George W. Bush. It's not good.

In terms of income growth and poverty reduction, Bush performed worse than any two-term president of the modern era. Even in the best year of his presidency, 2007, the typical American household still earned less after inflation than in the year 2000. The next year, 2008, American households suffered the worst income drop since record-keeping began six decades ago.

In my Republican party, there is worryingly little discussion of this damning trend. We do criticize ourselves for over-spending in office. But economic management gets much less, almost zero, internal discussion.

So, what went wrong? Liberals criticize the Bush tax cuts, but it's impossible to see any causation between lower taxes and the failure of incomes to gain ground. All three of the previous major tax cuts in U.S. history -- in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s -- were followed by very strong income growth.

The more plausible culprit is the surge in health care costs. Over the years from 2000 to 2007, the price employers paid for labor rose handsomely: on average, 25 percent. Yet for the typical worker, none of that extra cost translated into higher wages.

Between 2000 and 2007, the cost of the average health insurance policy for a family of four doubled, from about $6,000 to over $12,000. That took a big bite out of the gains available for wage increases. More than a bite: the health-care system gulped down every morsel, and forced employers to raise co-pays and deductibles for good measure.

Conservatives and Republicans need to keep this history in mind and remember that when we are debating health-care costs, we are also debating wages, incomes, and by the way, explaining the true reasons for the disappointing economic record of the Bush years.

RYSSDAL: Probably relevant to point out here that David Frum used to be a speechwriter for President Bush. He's currently a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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