Jason Chaffetz, the Congressman who was memorably described by Stephen Colbert as a "seductive beaver," is rightly receiving a lot of grief for his suggestion that people might be able to afford health insurance if they just demonstrated a bit more personal responsibility when it comes to other expenditures, like, um, iPhones.


GOP Rep. Chaffetz: Americans may need to choose between "new iphone… they just love" and investing in health care https://t.co/5Hxwn2uOl5

— New Day (@NewDay), March 7, 2017

On a purely mathematical level, this is bonkers. Say that you're profligate enough to buy a new iPhone every two years. If you pay $720 for that phone, that's $30 per month. That's roughly 10% of the cost, under Obamacare, of the second-cheapest health insurance premium for a 40-year-old non-smoker making $30,000 per year. Meanwhile, the cost of health insurance for the average American family reached $18,142 in 2016. Which is more than $1,500 per month. So no, you're not going to be able to afford health insurance just by giving up your new iPhone.


Chaffetz's broader point, which is that you can afford health insurance if you cut back on more discretionary forms of spending, also doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But the form of discretionary spending that he seized upon–the fact that he picked on phones, in particular–is very telling, and in fact is something of a right-wing dog-whistle. Once upon a time, Republican politicians would criticize poor Americans for spending money they couldn't afford on Xbox consoles. In Chaffetz's home state of Utah, it's actually illegal for poor Americans (or at least those on food stamps) to use their EBT cards at liquor stores.

But in the age of refugees, a new meme has emerged: The idea that if you have a smartphone, that means you're not truly needy.

Refugees need their smartphones, of course: Many of them would rather go hungry than lose their phone, which is their lifeline. Similarly, many Americans need their phone for employment, for transportation, and for any number of other daily necessities. It's the ability to live your life happily without a cellphone that is the real luxury these days: If you have a car and an office and a landline and cable TV and consider an iPhone to be a luxury, you're utterly clueless.



Chaffetz believes in the power of markets, and of choice: He would like to live in a world where individuals can make their own decisions about what they want to purchase and what they don't. (Unless, of course, what they want to purchase happens to be for sale at a liquor store.) In principle, that's a reasonable position to take. Except that in practice, Chaffetz gets it all wrong.

He gets it wrong on the micro level: The whole point of devolving purchase decisions down to the individual level is that people know their own needs much better than politicians can, and should be best trusted to know when a new iPhone is something worth spending their hard-earned money on.

But he gets it wrong on the macro level, too. There's a small number of services that need to be provided at a societal level, and can't simply be left up to individuals. Education is one: You're not allowed to decide that you'd rather have a new iPhone than send your kid to elementary school. Defense is another: The decision as to whether or not to pay for American soldiers fighting foreign wars cannot be devolved to individuals. And, importantly, health care is a third.

Health insurance works by cross-subsidy: A certain number of people get sick each year, and incur enormous expenses. By spreading those expenses across a large group of individuals, both healthy and sick, everybody can get the care they need at predictable cost. If healthy individuals are allowed to opt out of buying health insurance, then the system fails on two fronts. Firstly, there isn't enough money to pay for caring for the sick, and secondly, when some small percentage of those formerly healthy uninsured individuals do get sick, there's no way of paying for their health care, either.

The point is that buying health insurance is very different from buying an iPhone. If you don't buy an iPhone, you don't harm anybody else. But if you don't have health insurance, you help to fracture the well-being of all Americans. Including Jason Chaffetz's constituents.