Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 17, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, March 17 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone, and thanks for joining the discussion on what seems to be a National Day of Outrage. It's perfectly understandable that most people, learning about the egregious AIG bonuses for the first time, would be marching on Wall Street with pitchforks and torches. Less understandable is the newfound rage among officials who have known about these arrangements for months and, apparently, thought they were just fine. Seems to me the White House needs to get out in front of this thing or risk being seen as part of the problem.


D.C.: Sorry to hear about the mishap -- I too was an Avocado Victim, in 2005 (knife through thumb instead of intended avocado/GW emergency room/stitches). I didn't even think twice about my excellent health insurance at the time, but my circumstances are a bit different now. I'm currently on Cobra, and fortunate to be able to afford it. Looming ahead is the time it runs out and the chance (all too likely in this economy) that I will be working on a temp/contract basis, and not have employer-provided coverage. Guacamole may not be the only thing I need to give up.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. (For those who haven't had time to read my somewhat self-indulgent column this morning, it was an account of my recent encounter with the health care system.) I had a lot of time on my hands the last couple of weeks, and I couldn't help but think about what a difference health insurance means.


GS-5 in Washington, D.C.: Here's my bottom line: I'm helping pay AIG people get bonuses that exceed my annual salary so they won't leave their job, so they can complete what they've started with AIG. Spouse laid off, we're hurting financially, gave up one of our two cars, reduced our family's lifestyle, future plans are now unknown, and we are paying so that bonuses can be paid to personnel of a failed company. Am I seeing things wrong?

Eugene Robinson: No, that's about right. I would add that, arguably, the people at the AIG Financial Products Division who are getting these bonuses are more responsible for this whole financial crisis than any other group of people I can think of.


DC: Gene -- Great piece today, hope your hand makes a full recovery. Glad it may have opened your eyes a little to government run health care. You say (and the numbers support you) that 46 million Americans are uninsured. That means 254 million Americans (like you and me and most everyone I know) have insurance and have worked hard to earn that benefit. Why should 85% of us give up that benefit (that we've earned) and move to universal health care to take care of the 15% that doesn't have it? It's pretty clear that the quality of treatment will decline (look at other countries with socialized health care) for the 85% of us that have earned the privilege of health insurance. I'm all for taking care of those that can't care for themselves but most of those 15% do have access to low cost health insurance but say they cannot afford it, but they can afford cell phones, iPods, cable TV, etc.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. But I'm not aware of any proposal that those who, like me, have health insurance that does the job would ever have to give that up. The goal is to get people covered who now have no insurance, and I feel more strongly than ever about that goal. But it's true that I am more sensitive than I was to the need to fix what's broken but not the parts of the system that work.


D.C.: I think it was Steven Pearlstein who said that we imagine three ideals in health care: universal coverage, high quality care (to include choice of doctors), and low cost. He also said that we can at best achieve two out of three goals.

Which two would you choose? Which two do you think the country would choose (if we could have an honest debate on the subject)?

Eugene Robinson: I would choose universal coverage and high-quality care, but I'm not sure I agree with Steve's premise of only two out of three. One question is how we define high-quality care. If you go by outcomes -- life expectancy, survival rates, infant mortality, etc. -- there are quite a few countries with universal coverage who spend less on health care but still achieve outcomes equal to or better than ours. It's true, though, that access to new, high-tech, very expensive tests and treatments is an issue. But I don't think the choice is as stark as "only two of three."


New York: I listen to radio, mostly 'liberal' NPR, for much of the day, and there has been no end to the reporting about AIG and how it's costing Pres. Obama political capital. Excuse me, but wasn't AIG bailed out, with no strings attached, by Bush and Paulson in September and October 2008? Is it asking too much from the mainstream media to mention this fact, that the stage for this theft by AIG was set up by an Administration that some of the biggest loudmouth pundits supported? What has happened to journalism in this country, or am I just getting old?

Eugene Robinson: You're right. The fact is, though, that this administration has given every signal that it will -- even if reluctantly -- continue to keep AIG from total collapse, because it that happens it's not clear what would happen. Rather, it's not clear how bad the domino-effect on banks and other firms would be. It might be unimaginably bad. The Obama administration inherited this financial mess, but it can't decline ownership. We should remember the whole sequence of events stretching back through last year, but that can't change the situation as we find it right now.


Pittsburgh: Watching Bloomberg News the other day, I saw an analyst call the financial wizards that got us in this mess "narcissists with MBA's." That was certainly my experience of the financial services business during the 1980's -- the best and the brightest were usually the most aggressive and least ethical (think Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow). The argument that any of these businesses need to pay "retention bonuses" in order to keep employees from going across the street to work is laughable. Are there any jobs across the street? If I ran the show I'd hire a bunch of whiz kids from MIT to value and and unwind the toxic assets under the direction of a few old hands. The MIT grads aren't going to find jobs on Wall Street anytime soon and will do a great job for less the the AIG folks are making. Then I'd repeal the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. Perhaps Wall Street would be better off hiring people who know how to think -- maybe some English majors.

Eugene Robinson: I couldn't agree more with your premise, which is that paying these bozos bonuses to stay in their jobs is about the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I don't believe they are the only people in the world who could possibly understand these complicated deals and figure out how to unwind them. Just because they made the mess doesn't mean they're the only ones who can clean it up. And who on earth is going to hire these people? Deutsche Bank is going to say hey, come on over and wreck the Frankfurt markets just like you wrecked Wall Street?


Philadelphia, Pa.: I say let's take our chances with a jury and break the bonus contracts that AIG has with the "best and the brightest". Do you think a jury will uphold those bonuses?

Eugene Robinson: I haven't seen the contracts themselves -- I don't know that any outsiders have -- but it's hard for me to believe that there isn't something in there that could be used as an escape clause. There's a move in Congress today to tax those bonuses at or near a 100 percent rate. The U.S. government can probably find a way to get what it wants.


Tallahassee, Fla.: It doesn't matter to me if it is single payer system or some revision of what we have now, although single payer certainly seems the simpler choice. It doesn't matter to me if it considered a socialist system or some compromise between what we have now and a more sensible capitalist system. I don't know and just don't care what the structure of our new health care system will look like. I do care how it will work. We will not be able to call ourselves an advanced and just nation until, one, a person, any person, can go to the doctor when he or she is sick, and also at least once a year for preventative health. And two, in an advanced, just society, a person, any person, will be able to go the dentist when he or she has a dental problem, as well as going once or twice a year for preventative dental care. And of course, we get to use the doctor of our choice. (Now called the Avocado Principle.) So argue all you want about structure, funding, etc., just make it fair and responsive. And get on with it, will you?

Eugene Robinson: Well said.


Richmond, Va.: As we come into focus on the billions given to companies like AIG, and billions to the automotive industry that has yet to do any good, billions here, billions there, etc., do you see any growing backlash of ENOUGH!!!!??? While I feel some level of bolstering the financial systems has perhaps avoided a worse situation, I can't help feeling more and more frustrated we are spending billions/trillions in borrowed money that won't have much effect short or long term. When do we get out our torches and pitch forks?

Eugene Robinson: I think there's enormous frustration with these bailouts, and rightly so. The question is when will we reach the point of having prevented utter disaster. There doesn't seem to be a consensus that we've gotten there yet. So frustration will continue to mount.


Raleigh, N.C.: Thanks for your column about health care. I'm a relatively healthy person but have a chronic cancer. Because I can still work, I work two full-time jobs, seven days a week, and have been doing this for four years now. I have "good" insurance with one of my jobs, but the co-pays and deductibles are too high for me to make it with one job, hence the second.

For people who don't believe it's time for for universal health care, I remind them that working two jobs isn't going to keep me healthy for long, and that when I can no longer do that, they're going to be paying for me anyway.

Isn't it generally cheaper to offer preventive care so that as many of us as possible can keep working and paying taxes for the long run?

I can't imagine anyone would argue against preventive maintenance on their house or car, but they believe the bulk of us should live without access to preventive care and just deal with things when they become catastrophes. Where's the logic?

Eugene Robinson: There is no logic.


Fairfax, Va.: "The way we ration health care now -- according to the individual's ability to pay -- is immoral, and if higher taxes are needed to ensure that no one has to choose between health and bankruptcy, I'll pay."

The way we rationed housing before 1957 -- according to the individual's ability to repay a mortgage -- was also perhaps immoral, but we are certainly paying now for the attempt to abolish that aspect of reality. I understand you are not quite so sanguine about paying for that. Could that be because the mortgage bailout payments are here today, but you have yet to experience the costs of socialized medicine? I grew up in England, and came to the U.S. partly to escape from socialized medicine.

Be careful what you wish for!

Eugene Robinson: It's possible to rent your housing and live a long and happy life. That's not possible without health care, so I see a distinction between the two situations. I lived in England for a couple of years and had a mixed experience with the National Health Service -- it was very good for routine care, but some ailments are not routine and I want to have a wider range of choices. The idea of a single-payer system here is off the table, in any event. But I'd also question the assumption that if we wanted a single-payer system, we couldn't look at other such systems around the world and figure out how to do it better.


Washington, D.C.: I am tired of hearing "I want to select any doctor I wish." It is not that simple. I have a fine health insurance plan through my employment but most certainly cannot select "any doctor" I wish -- many of the very best doctors do not accept any health insurance plans. Even the best plans have limitations on physicians and procedures. Let us stop kidding ourselves!

Eugene Robinson: That's true. For more and more physicians, at least around here, the deal is that you pay up front and then you have to do the arguing with the insurance company to get reimbursed. As I said, we ration health care according to the ability to pay.


Tahlequah, Okla.: Not a question but a suggestion. We eat a lot of guacamole around here and do not use dangerous instruments to get the goodie out of the avocado. Use a tablespoon, much safer. I think we all appreciate your columns and good, clear thinking.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks, but if I had been thinking more clearly, I'd have used a spoon.


About the "Slow Down!" crowd:: What's striking to me is that many of those saying Obama is taking on too many things, trying to change too much, are likely the same people who where shouting in October that two years of a Democratic Congress produced no results!

With the media focus on "The 100 Days" plastered all over the cable and network news and chat shows, imagine how it would look at the end of those 100 days and all Obama had to show was Senate Republican opposition to his economic plans? These same people saying he's doing too much would be saying he's a Do Nothing president!


Eugene Robinson: I wrote a column making a similar point. Obama was elected to do things -- specific things. The commentariat would be all over him if he did nothing to acknowledge that mandate.


Detroit: Gene, I'm struck by how neatly a guest's comment often leads into a prepared quote by Sunday show hosts (especially David Gregory). I know guests don't rehearse per se, but how much coordination is done before the show?

Eugene Robinson: No coordination at all, except that journalists invited to do the Meet the Press roundtable are given an idea beforehand of what topics will be covered. If there's a last-minute change, we almost always get warned. And nobody knows who is going to get the first question on a given topic, much less what that question will be.


Anonymous: " I listen to radio, mostly 'liberal' NPR, for much of the day, and there has been no end to the reporting about AIG and how it's costing Pres. Obama political capital."

Another point along these lines: Do Post and other reporters use their Politicalcapitalometer to determine where it may be today? And with all the huffing and puffing about it, can you imagine what we'll resort to if the President needs to bail out Eastern Europe? It's tough for a media trained on political gamesmanship to find itself in a period in need of statesmanship...just no way of measuring in the here and now.

Eugene Robinson: The velocity of the news cycle encourages us all to exaggerate both the new administration's successes and its setbacks. It's as if we're trying to take a new measurement -- of everything -- at the top of each hour.


Day of Outrage: You know, I am not surprised the outrage is boiling over. Do our idiotic politicians not watch the international news and seen the protests and anger felt by various countires? I mean, Obama (of whom I am a huge admirer) needs to step the heck up, put all these AIG people in their place and we need to move on, with our without AIG. I cannot believe we -need- them to solve these "complicated financial instruments." Total garbage.

Eugene Robinson: I think our political leaders are finally aware that people are not happy. They got the message.

My time is up for today, folks. Thanks, as usual, for dropping by. See you again next week.


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