Real Time With Bill Maher, Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening I’m on Bill Maher’s HBO show, as part of a three person panel with Muhammad Yunus and Jon Meacham.  Bill runs a wide-ranging discussion covering pretty much anything that’s been in the news over the past week or so.  With Muhammad and Jon there, I’m sure we’ll get into issues of ethics and values – including whether we have let “the profit motive” become too central in our society.

In terms of other topics related to economics, my guess is we’ll talk about:

  1. Whether financial markets and the economy have really bottomed out.  Relative financial calm but continued negative economic impact seems to fit what we are seeing and hearing.
  2. To what extent we should expect more regulation as a response to this crisis.  On this, see my Economix column this morning – there is definite tension between regulating tightly and hoping that banks will be profitable enough to earn their way back towards standard capital levels.
  3. Is there yet a plausible national agenda for reforming healthcare?  In particular, how exactly do we propose to control costs – the trajectory of which looks damaging, particularly as seen in the projections for Medicare down the road?
  4. Is President Obama proving effective at pushing change in an incremental manner, or should he be more bold?  Is Rahm’s Doctrine real or just rhetoric?

Tell me if you think there are other questions that may come up – it’s a live show, so everything can change up until 10pm eastern Friday.  And feel free to suggest answers – I’ll be able to look at anything you send in until about an hour before the program starts.

By Simon Johnson

50 thoughts on “Real Time With Bill Maher, Tomorrow

  1. “…including whether we have let “the profit motive” become too central in our society.”

    Enough – What a quaint concept.

    As if a 21st century American could ever have it.

    Of anything…

  2. Clayton Christensen has some very good ideas on controlling health care costs long term

    They were summarized in the Sloan Mgmt Review Spring 2009 pages 67-70, particularly on pages 69-70 See:

    Also the movement towards standardizing best practices and using evidence based approaches to determining what treatments work and are worth the money are sure to have a large payoff in reducing the increases in medical costs. Regional differences in the use of procedures without any evidence that patients in those regions are healthier demonstrate that there is much low fruit cost reductions that can be harvested relatively quickly.

    Electronic medical records is a basic first step towards getting control on costs.

    There needs to be a financial link between an individual’s life style choices and the cost to the individual for their health care. Simply put those who are unwilling to control their health need to experience the financial consequences of those choices. Thus premiums should absolutely reflect such things as BMI (Body Mass Index), Cholesterol levels, Blood pressure etc. to the extent that they are within the patients control.

    In other words, there needs to be some responsibility placed on a patient to pursue healthy lifestyles or incur higher premiums if they are unwilling to become part of the solution.

    Similarly, those who want to have absolutely everything done to prolong their lives when they are clearly dying need to pay for that privilege by paying health care premiums that reflect the extra costs of that type of futile medical expense. This addresses the high proportion of Medicare costs incurred in the last 6 months of life. This would require some sort of irreversible decision that would need to be made when initially joining Medicare that reflected their personal value choices. If they want futile care to eke out a few extra months of life, they should have earned that right only by having made a required extra financial contribution in the form of higher health care premiums while in Medicare.

    Thus many of the long term forecasts as to the share of GDP that will be consumed by medical care are greatly exaggerated.

    Also, patents expire so many of today’s high cost drugs and medical devices will be much less expensive as those patents expire. This means that today’s standards of care will be much less expensive in the future.

    Should we choose to move to new therapies offered by expensive new drugs we should do so only if there is evidence that the high costs are justified. Of course the government also needs to insure that companies don’t game the patent system to extend their monopolies or to prevent robust generic competition once those patents expire.

    Keep up the good work

  3. How about a discussion on the impact of the credit card bill that passed yesterday? I found two things interesting about this:

    1. The banks used their old familiar scare tactics; e.g. this will harm borrowers with good credit, interest rates will increase for everyone, points-based incentives are going away.

    2. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

    Is this a sign of things to come with broader bank and securities reform? Has congress finally turned a cold sholder to bank scare-mongering and influence peddling? Or, was this just a convenient way for congress and the administration to say they’re getting tough on banks, even as the influence of the remaining institutions (Goldman, JPM Chase) grows more insidious and pervasive on the big issues like anti-trust and derivatives regulation?

  4. Re: whether financial markets have really bottomed out

    Anecdotal accounts suggest that corporate bonds are catching ever higher bids on increasing volume.

    I am not an expert on this market, but I would like to hear from one. My impression is that bond traders are (much) smarter than equity traders. If corporate bonds are truly recovering without implicit or explicit government support, I would consider that meaningful.

  5. We’ve already seen the turf wars starting at the suggestion of a new Financial Products Safety Commission.

    The much ballyhooed Credit Card bill makes for a good show but is considerably weaker than is warranted.

    Does the administration have the power and the will to actually regulate anything, much less restructure the regulatory system?

    If they can’t solve this problem, something which is largely within their jurisdiction and control, how are they ever going fix the health care system?

  6. Who is really waving pitchforks these days – consumers or bankers?

    What do you think about Royal Dutch Shell shareholders voting against the compensation packages for execs? It’s not binding – but is it a trend? Could we see a change in executive compensation as a result of the crash?

    How and when did executive compensation become divorced from accountability? How has this way of compensating executives helped American businesses? (Has it helped at all to reward business leaders so generously but impose no penalties at all should they fail?)

  7. I would expect torture and war crimes (Cheney) will be a topic of discussion.

    As with the economic crisis there are some who would prefer we deal only with the here and now, that we cannot afford to look backward. But, IMHO we need to understand who did wrong (authorized torture / took excessive risks) and seek to address the reverse incentives (above the law / false theories like torture has made us safer / golden parachutes despite failure) we will find ourselves here again all to easily.

    Have fun! Look forward to watching.

  8. I don’t know Yunus. I am familiar with Meacham, who is my opinion is just way over rated. He will say nothing of any signifigance whatsoever.

  9. On a show such as Bill Maher’s, succinct and surprisingly incisive remarks pack the most punch. And if you think of a funny way to put it, all the better.

    Healthcare and health insurance reform can be seen as TOTAL societal reforms: they affect the vast majority of ordinary people in their daily lives, and everyone knows what it’s like to be desperately ill and need medical care. This deep and pervasive anxiety must have all kinds of economic effects, on productivity, job mobility, financial stability, and our general happiness. (Remember that pursuing happiness is part of our founding credo!)

    So I’d recommend using health reform as the base issue. It’s time for major reform of our broken system, replacing profit-driven parts with universal participation, progressive payroll contributions, and proven efficiencies.

    1. The entire federal budget could broadly be summarized as that of a huge health and retirement agency, with an army. (Paul Krugman used to say this, well before the current financial crisis.)

    Supporting something bigger than the army shouldn’t be left to individual caprice; we don’t let people who don’t fly opt out of paying for air traffic control, so younger healthy people have to contribute to social health care according to their means as well.

    2. Uwe Reinhardt writes how countries like Germany, Netherlands, and Switzerland do not have a public healthcare option, but have tightly regulated private insurers cover health care, paid for by universal payroll deductions. Central to that is their having a social solidarity sense of what society is about, not every-man-for-himself individualism.

    3. Many people who are comfortable with whatever insurance & health plan they now have will resist changing. But their plans will likely change anyway; consider how the credit card reform legislation has changed (probably raising) the actual and potential fees and interest for even the best current credit card customers.

    4. Why is the most rational plan, single-payer, excluded from the discussion, and its advocates jailed when they show up at congressional hearings? At least, every reason that favors single-payer could contribute to why a public option must be part of the mix.

    5. The current private health insurance industry would be demolished under single payer, but most of its employees in various capacities could be absorbed by the expanded federal health plan.

    6. The VA hospital & care system could be a model to move toward, or expanding the Congressional health plan, or of course Medicare, to cover everyone.

    7. Many are surprised to realize that we’re not even considering dental care & insurance, an important facet of health, and a huge cost for many.

    Have fun on the show, remember you can speak much more….candidly on Bill Maher’s panel.

  10. Good grief—Bill Maher’s show??? I am curious about SJ’s and Muhammad Yunus’ appearance on the Bill Maher’s program. Meachem is another story. While I enjoyed American Lion, I believe Meacham’s frequent media appearances have more to do with saving Newsweek in the face of vanishing advertising revenues and an outmoded business model than promoting his book. Why any serious thinker in any profession would appear on Bill Maher’s program is beyond my ken. Same goes for Jon Stewart’s show. Stewart and Maher are stand-up comedians, not philosphers. Their shows do not provide a forum for important ideas and, more often than not, people talk over on another making much of what is said to be unintelligible. The purpose of these shows is to showcase the stars, not the ideas of the guests.

  11. Bill Maher believes the government programs advocating flu shots are a huge scam. Apparently he doesn’t believe in pathogenic causes of disease. Think of the money that could be saved if that were true… we could abolish the NIH and most research into viruses. And you, Simon, could talk about the economic consequences of reallocating that medical research.

  12. And, what philosopher’s show would you have them go on? I have the feeling you dislike the show due more to your differences with the host’s opinions than whether it is thought provoking. If you enjoy reading Simon, than I would think you’d like to hear what he has to say on Maher’s show since he allows an open dialogue and guests to really challenge one another (not just repeat the lame talking points used on just about every other “serious” show).

  13. to control costs it is necessary to identify cost problems

    obvious cost problems like the profits of insurance plans, the marketing costs of insurance plans, protection of pharma prices in the us, marketing expenses of pharma companies are off the table

    as long as health care is in the control of us investors, we cannot make progress in providing better health care, it will remain in the hands of investors

  14. Simon:

    I’m hoping the opportunity comes up to discuss the disconnect between what people read in the popular press (& see on TV), and what the rest of us read on financial blogs and deeper economic reports. The news shows have “happy talk” about green shoots and how we’ve made a bottom. But I keep reading online about the increase in foreclosures of prime mortgages, lower GDP, higher unemployment and how fragile the economy really is. – I think there’s a total disconnect and the public really has been mislead, again.

  15. I was just implying that Maher’s and Stewart’s humor does not approach the level of men like Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Actually, I enjoyed SJ’s casual humor which was apparent during his online lectures: SJ is a charming version of Kingfield, the king of Socratic dialogue. I remember when Maher’s show, Politically Incorrect, was dropped by ABC after his 9/11 comments. While I share many of Maher’s opinions about religion (I am agnostic.), gay rights (I am one of two people who voted for gay marriage in N. Florida.), and government (I am a cynic), in my opinion, Maher is mean and crude, and you, sir or madame, assume too much about my opinions.

  16. If you reread my post you’ll see that no assumptions were made. You are certainly not alone in your opinion of Maher. I look forward to Simon’s appearance, more so than I would be if he were to be interviewed by any talking head on CNN, MSNBC, or (please no) Fox News.

  17. Real or rhetoric.

    Let’s stay on top of this “angle.”

    The Baseline Scenario blog is going to be a hilarious read in a few years.

    Please tell us again why you fellows are doing this blog (if you told us before, that is; missed it if you did.) Philanthropy?

    Sorry, not being respectful of the hosts. Please, Carry On.

  18. I actually see Stwewart as akin to Will Rogers. Rogers was very plain spoken and used the media of his day effectively. With the modern hype, hyperbole and vulgarity in todays media we can expect a voice like Rogers to sound like one from another time. Stewart fits well with todays plain spoken (ie., vulgar) television while espousing a populist outlook like Rogers.

    Most importantly is that shows like Maher’s and Stewart’s have audiences so a person can get their point across to many people and not just the few reading this blog.

  19. I would also prepare for questions about who is to blame for the mess, about whether or not banks and bankers are acting shamed enough. A theme with Maher is to not let up on Bush or the GOP for their sins, it’s good to have something thought up that’s fresh, or dispels a common myth.

    Also, don’t try to be too funny. Guests often bomb when they try to do that, Maher is the funny one, you can bring alot to the table by solidly contrasting or correcting the host or the other guests.

  20. Ask Bill about his narrating the movie “Religilous”. It was an incredibly insightful and hilarious movie!

  21. What about when the U.S. will lose its AAA rating and the consequences thereof?

  22. The show is an hour, but with his rubbishy stand-up, initial guest, later guest, New Rules and spontaneous applause, you should be prepared for the panel piece to last not much more than 20mins.

    Standard James Goldsmith approach to TV media applies: make only a few points and don’t allow yourself to be interrupted.

    Regards, Jonathan.

  23. Why do most economists believe that the solution to too much debt is more debt?

  24. The sad truth is that Jon Stewart is a better reporter, better and holding those in power accountable for the words and actions, and better at fact-checking that pretty much any “real” tv news show out there. I say this not to suggest that comedians make the best journalists, but rather as a statement about the sorry state of television news today.

  25. Is this the future for all states? From the LA Times: “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to completely eliminate the state’s welfare program for families, medical insurance for low-income children and Cal Grants cash assistance to college and university students.”

  26. Ralph, Where I live and work the most unhealthy individuals (high BMI, and tobacco dependence) are in the lowest financial class and have few resources so are unable to pay, and or or if so use medicaid benefits. I see little ability to tax these people for the extra health care costs they create, beyond the taxes that are levied on them when they purchase tobacco. There is also a huge disconnect in their expectations of what is owed them when ill. They consume enormous capital for an extra month of life and how we deny them care is yet to be determined, but it will create a huge ethical dilemma. There is no buy in here.

  27. JD Johnson: “2. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

    Is this a sign of things to come with broader bank and securities reform? Has congress finally turned a cold sholder to bank scare-mongering and influence peddling? Or, was this just a convenient way for congress and the administration to say they’re getting tough on banks, even as the influence of the remaining institutions (Goldman, JPM Chase) grows more insidious and pervasive on the big issues like anti-trust and derivatives regulation?”

    My guess is that there is a very simple explanation: votes. Perhaps Congressmen have been swamped with mail or email from constituents who are upset about what has happened to them or about what they have heard is happening. Regardless of what the contract might say, they do not think that it is right for rates to be raised on current balances if people have been paying their bills, or they only miss one payment, or they miss a payment on their phone bill. And even if a Congressman has not gotten a lot of mail, they are worried what will happen if they voted against the bill and many of their constituents get shafted by their credit card companies and blame them for voting against the bill. All of this is exacerbated by the confusion, outrage, and anger about the fat cats who got us into trouble and who are getting huge bailouts.

    On other matters that do not hit home to their constituents so directly, and are harder for voters to understand, who knows how Congress will vote?

  28. Possible question:

    Bill Maher:

    Simon Johnson, you are a professor of entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. And Muhammad Yunus, you are famous for developing the concept of microcredit and you sit on the board of Grameen America.

    What are the chances of starting a — hybrid microcredit banking system in America — so ordinary folks can have an alternative to the Zombie banks?

  29. Ralph: “This addresses the high proportion of Medicare costs incurred in the last 6 months of life.”

    I would like to find out more about these last 6 months costs. My father had a serious infection that was mis-diagnosed for three weeks, and he spent a total of three months in the hospital. The doctors gave him a 50% chance of survival. He lived for another 5 years.

    But if he had died, the expenses would have been part of the statistics of the last 6 months of life. Serious illnesses can be costly to treat, and still have high mortality rates. Someone in their 40s could have gotten this infection and died, and the expense would have been chalked up to the “last 6 months of life.”

    These statistics do not necessarily mean that a lot of money is spent adding a few months to someone on their last legs. I would like to know what the story is with them.


    Let’s talk political economy.

    Simon Johnson, one of your former countrymen, the BBC documentary film maker Adam Curtis did an interesting series called The Trap that aired in 2007. You may have seen this. His thesis is — game theory — started during the Cold War to identify, the maximum strategic value of nuking, cities and their unfortunate inhabitants to death, found a happy home with economists like Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. Great. It seems like they just managed to nuke the global financial system.

    Simon and Muhammad, you are both economists, so tell me:

    What is your opinion on game theory as it relates to economics?

    And where would you like the pendulum of political economy to swing?


    Karen Tumulty the Time Magazine correspondent has said: Given the option, 130 million Americans would opt for a Medicare-type government plan, which would essentially — break the business model — for the health insurance industry. Sounds interesting.

    There are these Commie notions of universal health care up in Canada, where a slacker family of three or more, pays just $108 a month in premiums.


    If we started down the slippery slope of universal health care, what fresh hell would we be wreaking on the American economy and the American way of life?

  32. I would expect the state of the State of Gulyvornia to be a topic at some point in the show, perhaps the question of whether or not bailout money should be made available to the state in view of the relative and overwhelming impact of real estate losses on property tax revenue.

    If business can’t spend and the state can’t spend then should the federal government step in? Geithner said just today that he had no plans in that regard.

    You may want to opine on whether the principal of fiscal stimulus should extend to states as opposed to discrete businesses or categorical infrastructure expenditures; the relative import of the California economy to the national economy; the contrast between aid to the automotive industry, which is essentially direct aid to the state of Michigan, and more general options where the state has a more diverse but nevertheless devastated economy; California as an example of regulatory capture having created governmental gridlock with demonstratable consequences.

  33. I watch Real Time every week, and am looking forward to your appearance. Bill is, in general terms, a huge Obama fan. I think that you should focus on attacking the Geithner non-plan, especially be sure to opine on the real meaning of the PPIP in action — essentially a non-starter, kind of toady (he to the Oligarchs) red herring device to distract from the total ruse of the non-Stress Tests. And, be sure to stress that a successful reform of the health care system would result in many economic benefits, not the least of which would be a more effecient allocation of economic resources, and mention that it is also a system where the Oligarchs are stepping forward with their own smoke screens to blunt the idea of a single-payer public plan being thrown into the system (which scares the bejesus out of them).


    Why are we re-inventing the wheel?

    Let’s copy the proven, cost-effective examples of the Swedish banking solution and the German medical care model.

  35. Also, I would personally find it helpful if you could somehow manage to raise the question as to whether or not QE has now run its course in view of what happened to the bond market Wednesday. And, if we can’t inflate our way out, then what?

    Perhaps it would be helpful to viewers to understand how printing money has already become a central part of economic strategy. I note that Krugman and Delong consider the possibility of a rise in interest rates to be rediculous in the face of an absence in demand, etc., but it be helpful for the audience to understand the titanic struggle of theory in practice underway.

  36. Aren’t Americans now just glorified employees of the PRC? Doesn’t China own so much of our debt that we pretty much have to do whatever they tell us to do?

    If every Congress-person is either independently-wealthy or in the pocket of one or more major corporations, why does anyone think that ordinary citizens have a say in what they do, fiscally? Aren’t we just flapping our gums until most Americans turn away to watch this year’s Celebrity Wannabe show?

    (fyi – those were suggestions for Maher questions, and not what I think at all. Unh-uh. No Way)

  37. 1) Is there ANY chance ANYONE will ever expose the sham we call the Ivy League? Or are they just so entrenched that we’ll never be rid of them? For the most part, rich people send their kids to these “universities” – where they snort coke and party, then graduate and take the helm of major corporations and nations and such. Obviously, we’ve seen how that pans out :)
    I wish rich people could all have smart kids – but the gene pool is just kinda wacky like that I guess.
    So how about an honest discussion of what a laughingstock these Ivy League schools have become – and how our recent financial meltdown can most likely be traced directly back to their “hallowed halls” and over-privileged brat grads?

    2) It’s very sad that the Boomers burned out so early in life – but seriously, when are they EVER going to hand over the reigns to a generation that might show some level of restraint or responsibility?
    They call us Generations X, Y, and Z – so can we just label them Generation Dubya?
    Also, how much money can we save by creating huge retirement farms for the Dubyas? Given the disaster they’ve left us, we MIGHT be able to afford one caretaker per 1000 old Dubyas.
    So why not embrace the 60s drug culture, plug them into IVs, and just keep them all HEAVILY sedated? It would definitely lower costs – plus they’ll all probably die off faster that way. Seriously, do we have any concrete plans for killing these people off before they permanently destroy our country – or is it already too late? (Sarcasm implied… maybe.)

    3) If Bill needs more content for his show, tell him he’ll have to pay me.

  38. Remind the audience that to get the Republican vote the President had to sign off on allowing concealed handguns into National Parks.

    To pass healthcare the Republicans will insist on “Take a Banker Camping” days.

    (Its mine, and would love to hear it)

  39. Re: “It would definitely lower costs… Seriously, do we have any concrete plans for killing these people off before they permanently destroy our country – or is it already too late?”

    Sounds like “life unworthy of life.” Where have I heard that before? Google Aktion T 4.

  40. I think it would be useful to concentrate on just how the Government is going to get its money back on a case by case basis. Just like a venture capitalist, it has a portfolio of investments with hopes of repayment. If it continues to act like the banks are indispensible, it will have no leverage to make any changes and may end up both losing the money and not helping the economy.

  41. Simon,

    I believe Maher will be unable to resist asking you whether you think the worst is over and whether we’re on our way to recovery.

    When you answer the question, I’d like you to take my question into account: what could possibly drive a recovery?

    Here’s my reasoning: Real incomes for the bottom 90% of Americans haven’t gone up over the last 30 years. That means that the bulk of economic growth over that period (i.e., after subtracting any growth caused by exports, population growth, and the top 10% of earners) has been the result of the incredible accumulation of debt by the bulk of American consumers. (Ultimately, even business spending is the result of consumer demand.) The current economic crisis isn’t a housing bubble that burst, it’s a credit bubble that burst. Now, the 90% people are consuming even less than their income as they attempt to de-leverage. It took 30 years to leverage up this much — how long will it take to de-leverage? And what will economic growth look like during this period? As Rachel Maddow would say, “Talk me down” from what I believe is an inescapable conclusion — that we’ll be lucky if we only have a Japanese “lost decade” — not because of banks reluctant to deal with their toxic assets, but because of consumers whose income isn’t going up (actually going down in the recession) and are more unwilling than unable to borrow more to support unsustainable lifestyles.

    If I’m missing something, help me out, or, better yet, help us all out tonight!

    Break a leg!! (Not really. And thanks for all you and James do for this blog.)


    Frank Arcoleo

  42. That’s completely unfair – Hitler had absolutely NO sense of humor. I’m not talking Gestapo tactics here – I’m talking about poking fun of the ever self-absorbed Generation W (Dubya).
    Barring their location of the fountain of youth, we’ll eventually be rid of them – yet remain saddled with their never-ending exuberance long, long past their eventual demise.
    But go ahead with that whole T 4 thing if it means turning the Ivy Leagues into concentrations camps. Congrats, YOU got accepted! Oh, the delicious irony that can never, ever be enjoyed, alas – because people of good taste “don’t go there”.

  43. Not to belabor the point, but it was you who equivocated on “sarcasm implied.” It was difficult to see your tongue so far in your cheek. You, afterall, prefaced the killing plans question with the word ‘seriously.’ As we used to say in the olden days at the state univerity that I attended , “take a chill pill.” Truce?

  44. NEVER! Sorry, I had Stewie and his English accent bouncing around in my head when I prefaced with the “Seriously” bit.
    It’s too bad Family Guy went down the tubes a few years ago – I’m guessing they were forced to hire more union workes (ie Ivy League grad flunkies). Ah well…

  45. Darn. I watch so little TV (I only have “premium” direct TV and not “platinum”) that I just realized I don’t get HBO. Is it worth the extra coin?

    Seriously, I don’t subscribe. I’ll look for the vid clip though.

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