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Health Reform and Competitiveness       WSJ, June 17, 2009

Democrats have spent years arguing that corporate tax rates don't matter to U.S. competitiveness. But all of a sudden one of their favorite arguments for government-run health care has become . . . U.S. corporate competitiveness. Political conversions on this scale could use a little scrutiny.

"Businesses now recognize that if we don't get a handle on this stuff then they are going to continue to be operating at a competitive disadvantage with other countries," President Obama recently remarked. "And so they anxiously seek serious reform."

Sure enough, many business leaders who should know better have picked up the White House theme. "You won't fundamentally solve the problems in business until you solve the problem of spiraling health-care costs, which is driving everybody crazy," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt the other day.

Messrs. Obama and Schmidt need to brush up on their economics. Employers may write the checks to the insurance companies, but workers still pay for the coverage they get from those employers. The total cost of an employee is what matters to businesses, and fringe benefits are as much a part of compensation as cash wages. When health costs rise, firms don't become less competitive, as if insurance were lopped out of profits. Instead, non-health compensation drops. Or wages rise more slowly than they otherwise would.

A recent study from none other than the White House Council of Economic Advisers notes exactly this point: If medical spending continues to accelerate, it expects take-home pay to stagnate. According to the New York Times, White House economic aide Larry Summers pressured CEA chairman Christine Romer to make the competitiveness argument, "adding that it was among the political advisers' favorite 'talking points.'" Ms. Romer pointedly retorted, "I'm not going to put schlocky arguments in there." How the schlock gets into Mr. Obama's speeches is a different question.

It's certainly true that the U.S. employer-based insurance system can dampen entrepreneurial spirits. There's the "job lock" phenomenon, in which employees fear leaving a less productive job because they're afraid to lose their health benefits. Another problem is that insurance costs more for small groups than the large risk pools that big corporations assemble, meaning that it's harder to form new businesses that can offer policies. But all this is really an argument for developing the individual health insurance market, where policies would follow workers, not jobs.

As for the competitiveness line, it's nonsense for most companies. The exceptions are heavily unionized businesses like auto makers that have locked themselves in to gold-plated coverage, especially for retirees. They have a harder time adjusting health costs and wages. Other companies might get a bit more running room in the short run if government assumed all health costs a la the single-payer systems of Western Europe. But over time the market would clear -- compensation being determined by the demand for and supply of labor -- and wages would rise. Or they might not rise at all if health-care costs are merely replaced by the tax increases necessary to finance Mr. Obama's new multi-trillion-dollar entitlement.

This is where the real competitiveness argument is precisely the opposite of the one pitched by Messrs. Obama and Schmidt. Consider the European welfare states, where costly entitlements and regulations make it extremely expensive to hire new workers. The nearby table lays out the tax wedge, the share of labor costs that never reaches employees but instead goes straight to government. In Germany, France and Italy, the tax wedge hovers around 50%, in part to pay for state-provided health care.

By contrast, the U.S. tax wedge was around 30% in 2008, according to the OECD. In other words, the costs of providing insurance would merely be converted into a larger wedge, which would itself eat into compensation. This is why Europe has tended to have higher unemployment and slower economic growth over the past 30 years.

If Democrats really want to increase U.S. competitiveness, they could look at the corporate income tax, which is the second highest in the industrialized world and a major impediment to U.S. job creation when global capital is so fluid. Or drop their proposals to raise personal income-tax rates, which affect thousands of small- and medium-size businesses that have fled the corporate tax regime as limited liability companies or Subchapter S corporations. Or cut capital gains rates, which deter risk taking and investment. Or rethink their plans to rig the rules in favor of organized labor by doing away with secret ballots in union elections.

On all these issues and more, Democrats want to increase, not reduce, the burdens on U.S. business. Their health-care line is, per Ms. Romer, "schlocky" political spin.