There is a part of me that really wants to believe that politicians advocate dumb ideas not because they are dumb but because they are cynically trying to garner support from other people who they think are dumb. Imagining cynicism in others is more cynical than imagining simple cluelessness.
But then I read something like this from The New York Times.
In an effort to rein in the spread of the H1N1 flu, Representative George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced legislation on Tuesday that would guarantee five paid sick days for workers sent home by their employers with a contagious illness.
I’m sure that most of you are smirking already, but for those who don’t immediately see what is humorously stupid here, let me lay it out. This bill would force employers to pay for sick days when they send employees home with the flu. This means it will be more expensive to send sick people home, so employers will be less likely to do it. This, in turn, will have the effect of increasing the spread of H1N1, not reining it in.
It is possible that Rep. Miller understands that this will have an effect opposite of what is notionally intended. Perhaps he figures that forcing employers to give something free to employees is a vote getter. But I don’t think so. "Vote Miller! He got those of us who work for companies larger than 15 employees, and didn’t already have paid sick days, up to five paid sick days if we are sent home with a contagious illness!" won’t fit on a bumper sticker. I think the poor guy really thinks this is a good idea that will help fight H1N1.
The problem is that Rep. Miller, the people he works with, and the reporters who write about them, live in a self-contained bubble. They have no idea how the world that the rest of us inhabit operates. To most of us, the idea that money given to one person has to come from another, and that that other person might not like it and may possibly act accordingly, is pretty darn obvious.
But to people like Miller, who have spent their entire adult lives in the never-never land of government (he was first elected to the House in 1974 at the age of 29) the ordinary checks and balances of capitalism are alien territory.
The most glaring example of this lately is the outrage, and I think it is genuine outrage, felt by members of Congress over credit cards. It turns out that, in the months running up to the much heralded package of credit card reforms coming into effect, those dastardly credit card companies are changing the fees and other terms of cards while they still can. Well, duh.
How could this possibly surprise anybody? Seriously, you thought the banks would forget about the law and be surprised the when new rules take effect in February?
Next you’ll be telling me that it didn’t occur to you that prohibiting health insurers from charging people in poor health higher premiums means that healthy people will pay more for insurance. And that that will make it even harder to get healthy young Americans to buy it, possibly increasing the ranks of the uninsured. I mean that’s so obvious I don’t need to say it. Right?
Why is it that we tolerate this sort of cloddish naiveté in our elected representatives? I’m not really sure, but I don’t think it is because we are ourselves quite that naive. I think it is because we really want to believe what Rep. Miller believes, that our problems are simple and can be fixed easily by a wave of the government magic wand.
I also wish that were true. I wish that we could increase the savings rate by sending text messages and that losses in the stock market are only due to criminal activity, rather than the natural tendency for the market to go down a lot once in a while. Sadly, that is not the hand we have been dealt. Parts of our world, especially the challenging bits we have trouble with, are very complex and not subject to side-effect-free simple solutions.
[That's Obama, Pelosi, Hoyer, and Miller in the photo. As far as I can tell, none of them has ever held a job at a for-profit enterprise.]