What the Federal Reserve's Unpopularity Means for Health Care

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Poor Federal Reserve. As a Gallup poll showed last week, it would lose a popularity contest to the IRS. That's too bad, especially considering that many economists I read credit the Federal Reserve's historically easy money for saving the economy, or at least keeping New York's Financial District from committing mass hari kari. But, of course, the economy still stinks, and when Americans are asked to rate the institution behind the stinky economy, they're going to focus on that stinkiness. So no surprise there. But I do think this poll offers an important lesson -- for health care.

Huh? Hear me out.


Take a look at the agencies rated in the Gallup poll.

500 fedagenciesrategallup.png

It seems to me that the agencies are mostly ranked in the opposite of their visibility. That is, the most popular agencies are the ones Americans interact with the least, and the most unpopular are the ones we feel the closest connection to. Except for the CDC (which I suppose gets high marks because cable news convinced everybody that swine flu would be an eleventh plague), the top ranked agencies are the ones you would never hear unless they made news: a spaceship exploding; an international spy crisis; a terrorist attack and so on. But Americans hate the IRS because we pay taxes every year. And Americans hate the Fed now because its name appeared in headlines that mentioned bank bailouts and a bad economy. The upshot is: If you want your agency to get high marks, stay the heck out of Americans' news and lives.

What in the world does that have to do with health care? One of the hallmarks of Obama's vision for health care reform is to empower an independent council of health care advisers. Many writers have compared this to a Federal Reserve or Supreme Court for health care. But if the stay-the-heck-out-of-our-lives theory applies to this independent agency as well, that's not very good news for Obama, because this health care council would be impacting people's lives on daily basis. For example, if the council advised doctors not to use certain gratuitous treatments to save money, some patients could scream to a pollster (or representative) about unfair rationing. The same way that Americans draw a line from the bad economy straight to the Federal Reserve, they would likely attach problems with their health care to the independent health care council, which would, inevitably, make it susceptible to political pressures. That's not to say that a independent health care council wouldn't save any money. It's to say that an independent agency designed to ruthlessly cut fat from our health care system could wallow in IRS-type unpopularity.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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