Beware the ObamaCare Win-Win

Author Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says that "effective" people think "win-win."  I'm sure that's true.  But there is another sort of "win-win" that my older brother used to pull on me when I was very young.  He'd toss a coin up in the air and shout: "Heads I win, tails you lose."  That was a "win-win," but not for me.  So, too, one needs to be very careful about politicians who set up for themselves a "win-win" situation in which, either way, they come out on top.

Take President Obama's government investments in now-defunct "green energy" companies such as Solyndra, Ener1, and Beacon Power.  He invests someone else's money in them, and if these companies become profitable and make some real money, well, then, they're likely to be on board for some serious re-election cash, and he's had a big "win."  If, on the other hand, they go defunct, well, no big deal.  He hasn't lost a dime of his own.  The fact that politicians aren't gambling with their own money in such matters is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Framers didn't delegate the power to invest in companies to them in the Constitution.  Indeed, it would be an interesting exercise in self-restraint if we docked congressional and presidential pay by the same percentage that the government overspent the debt ceiling.  Then they'd at least have some skin in the game. 

Sadly, often enough, given the contemporary media's dispositions and short attention span, the money just goes away, and no one notices.  What else that money might more fruitfully have been spent on is rarely discussed because, how could it?  It didn't happen.  We can't point to a concrete thing and say: "See this; we don't have this good and valuable thing because you spent our money on something stupid."  We can't point to it precisely because it doesn't exist.  The food we might have purchased, the day-care centers we could have kept open, the schools we could have financed with that money all remain invisible.  And since the media can't point to something that doesn't exist, they point instead to something they assure us does exist: the president's "good intentions."  Having invested substantial amounts of someone else's money, he gets credit from the environmentalists for trying, and since the president wasn't running the company himself, he doesn't get the blame for it failing.  Do you see?  At the end of the day, it's heads I win (if the companies are profitable, they're grateful to me), tails you (the taxpayers) lose -- but I still get credit for trying.

A similar win-win calculation seems to be at work in Mr. Obama's HHS mandate insisting that even religious institutions with moral objections to contraception, abortion, and sterilization must still provide these services free of charge in their health care plans.  Consider: why would a politician force unwilling Catholics (and others) to pay for services they consider patently immoral...and with no co-pay?!  When was the last time you saw something covered in a health plan with no co-pay?  Ask yourself: why would a politician risk making an already unpopular health care plan more unpopular by immediately validating everyone's worst fears about federal "overreach" in its first years by mandating services that everyone in the country knows are likely to be not only the most controversial, but more to the point, the most uncompromisingly unacceptable to a very large group of people in the country?

Why indeed, unless it's a win-win.

What will happen if universities like Notre Dame, for example, who are self-insured, refuse to abide by the contraceptive mandate?  Very clearly, if they decide to abide by their consciences, they'll have to cancel their health care plans and pay the fine.  That's what people who are true to their consciences do: they make sacrifices.  But now what happens to all their employees?  They go out on their own, where they will be vacuumed up in the nationalized health care plans of ObamaCare.  All of a sudden, the president not only has a huge influx of cash in his system from these large fines, but he also has a whole host of captive customers with no place else to go.  They are all required by the government to have health care coverage; their institutions cannot in good conscience insure them under the requirements stipulated by the government; ergo, what else can they do but buy into the nationalized health care plan, their consciences now assuaged about doing so because there was nothing else they could do?  So it's agree with me and cover contraception, or agree with me and join one of the nationalized plans that covers contraception.  Do you see?  It's a big win-win. 

The calculation is that too few people will want to enter into the nationalized health care pool and that it will have too little money to cover them.  What to do?  Is there a ready source of cash and of potential clients who can be forced to join the system without appearing to force them to join the system?  Yes, there is.  Catholic health care is the largest in the nation.  Where better to go for potential customers for your nationalized health care plan?  But how do you get them into your system rather than staying in theirs?  Easy.  Require the plans to do something they can't in good conscience do.  They will then have to dissolve themselves and hand over their assets and members to you, or else look like hypocrites for acting against what they insisted, just weeks before, was a rock-solid principle of conscience.

Notice here that there's no substantial reason to "compromise" on the mandate, because the mandate isn't merely one goal among others; rather, it's a means to an even greater and more noble end: namely the sort of nationalized health care system you've been envisioning all along.  The mandate is the catalyst that's going to get certain large portions of the private system to cannibalize themselves and hand their members over to the government.  It's brilliant, really.

As I say, beware the win-win.  People in such a position feel that they have no reason to compromise because they're convinced that the game is stacked entirely in their favor.  Heads I win (everyone covers contraception, and I've energized my liberal base), tails you lose (you cut loose all your employees into my nationalized health care system).  The only possible reason to "compromise" given such a win-win scenario would come from the very real threat of not being re-elected.  

Or, of course, actually not being re-elected.

Randall B. Smith, Ph.D. is an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas and the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.