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A Harvard Professor Says Some Stupid Things

No, this is not about Henry Louis Gates. I’m not about to wade into that particular controversy.

Instead, it’s about another Harvard professor, economist Martin Feldstein, who today penned an opinion piece in the Washington Post that is sadly misinformed on the health care debate.

Take a look at this:

Obama has said that he would favor a British-style “single payer” system in which the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are salaried but that he recognizes that such a shift would be too disruptive to the health-care industry. The Obama plan to have a government insurance provider that can undercut the premiums charged by private insurers would undoubtedly speed the arrival of such a single-payer plan.

Feldstein is simply mistaken here. “Single-payer” has to do with who pays for health care (in the case of single-payer, the federal government does). It has absolutely nothing to do with who provides health care. It’s the difference between the Canadian system, in which private doctors and hospitals are paid by the Canadian government (and indirectly, Canadian taxpayers) to provide health care to its citizenry, and the British system, in which the providers themselves — doctors, nurses, hospital administrators — are actually in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government. For that matter, it’s the difference between Medicare — a single-payer system for American seniors — and the British system. The Canadian system is nationalized health insurance. The British system is nationalized health care — or if you prefer, socialized medicine.

Obama has never expressed or implied any admiration for the British system of socalized medicine. Not that there aren’t admirable elements of it — but I doubt that you’d find even very many self-identified liberals who would suggest that it’s the right system for America. Obama, rather, has expressed admiration for a government-run monopoly on insurance — single-payer — as do about half of Americans in opinion polls.

This is really basic stuff — Health Care 101. For Feldstein to imply otherwise is to disqualify him from being taken seriously on the health care debate. He either has no idea what he’s talking about or he’s too ensconced in the Harvard Bubble to think that the truth matters.

Nor is that the only marginal assertion that Feldstein makes in his column. He also writes:

Although the president claims he can finance the enormous increase in costs by raising taxes only on high-income individuals, tax experts know that this won’t work. Experience shows that raising the top income-tax rate from 35 percent today to more than 45 percent — the effect of adding the proposed health surcharge to the increase resulting from letting the Bush tax cuts expire for high-income taxpayers — would change the behavior of high-income individuals in ways that would shrink their taxable incomes and therefore produce less revenue.

This is the old Laffer Curve argument, which is not a coincidence since Feldstein worked alongside Arthur Laffer in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to the idea of the Laffer Curve, but by no means would many or most “tax experts” agree with the assertion that increasing the top marginal tax rate from 35 to 45 percent would produce a net decrease in revenues. Most (though not all) of the academic evidence suggests that the threshold at which tax increases are revenue-reducing is much higher than 45 percent.

I don’t understand why things which would never get by the fact-checkers on the Washington Post’s news page are a-OK in editorial. The Laffer Curve argument, at least, can probably be understood to be weasel-worded opinion. But the confusion of “single-payer” and socialized medicine is an outright misstatement of fact.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.