Category: News and Events

Now that the saga of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Officer James Crowley has moved to the back-burner, let’s look at three less obvious lessons from Skip and Jimmy’s not-so-excellent adventure.

Understand that government is the use of legitimate force. Not necessarily “legitimate” in terms of morals and ethics, but legitimate in terms of what is legal. Police officers have moral and legal authority to use force in order “to serve and to protect”. At times, they may exceed or fail to exercise their authority. But the nature of their job implies a readiness to apply force.

It follows that one should be on their best behavior around the police. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that yelling at police officers will increase the probability that one will be arrested. In this case, even if Professor Gates was treated improperly, he clearly had it within his power to avoid being arrested.

At its root, government policy is about the use of force—whether to regulate behavior, to redistribute income, or to restrict mutually beneficial trade. We can miss this point by focusing on a democratic process where we seem to exercise tremendous choice over those who govern us. Or we can underestimate this point by assuming that government is typically benign.

President Obama’s word choice tells us something about his worldview. His now-famous decision to speak to the specifics of the Gates case was an over-reach of startling proportions.

It was surprising in that Obama “spoke stupidly” when he is usually so careful—often painfully so—with his words. (As a corollary, perhaps it should worry us that he values “diplomacy” so much, but is willing to speak out-of-pocket on awkward and sensitive issues.)

It was odd in that he is the Commander in Chief and chooses the Attorney General to be the chief law enforcement officer in the United States. A president’s default position should be to support the police.

It was sad in that our “post-racial” President botched a key moment for race relations. Instead of sticking to eloquent but general remarks about the underlying issues, Obama extended his comments to inappropriate specifics that created a firestorm and deepened unfortunate stereotypes.

Finally, it seems revealing in terms of what he thinks about his powers of intellect and assessment. This connects to the current debate on health care. In both cases, the President believes that a federal solution is the best way to handle problems. Instead of deferring to the locals who knew far more about the Gates situation, Obama presumed to be able to speak with expertise. In health care, he imagines that a single, grand, federal experiment in a remarkably complex and important arena is preferable to 50 state-wide experiments.

Everyone discriminates.

Labor economists distinguish between “personal discrimination” and “statistical discrimination”. Interestingly, both stem from a form of ignorance. The former is a subjective preference rooted in a socially unacceptable form of ignorance. A person doesn’t like a group of people out of bigotry.

The latter is more interesting because it is based in the reality that all of us make important decisions with imperfect and costly-to-obtain information. Out of varying degrees of ignorance, we make choices with the best information available to us at reasonable cost. Often, our best information about individuals involves their affiliation with groups. So, we stereotype from what we know about a group to members of that group. By definition, all of us discriminate in this manner.

Consider a pool of job applicants. The firm has relatively little information about candidates. So, they generalize from what they do know: where the applicants went to school, their GPA and field of study, the quality of reference letters, job experience, and so on. None of those are definitive; they are only somewhat predictive. For example, will someone with a 3.8 GPA be a more productive worker than someone with a 2.8 GPA? Usually, but not always.

Think about the term “prejudice”. Taken literally, it means to “pre-judge”, implying that someone is making a decision with too little information. At times, such decisions are necessary—and hopefully, people do the best they can with the info they have. At other times, it implies an unnecessary rush to judgment.

In this particular moment of crisis, both parties—Gates dealing with the police and the police dealing with him—were making important decisions with (very) limited information. By definition, Gates and the police were engaged in stereotyping. Of course, it is ironic that Gates did this while self-righteously accusing the police of doing the same. And it is absolutely fascinating that, by their training, both Professor Gates and Officer Crowley are “experts” on racial profiling.

Sadly, in judging the events from the outside, many people have been unnecessarily quick in a rush to prejudicial judgments in favor of Professor Gates or the police. The irony here is greatest among those, including President Obama, who have pre-judged by accusing Officer Crowley of discrimination.

One of my colleagues reduced the Gates situation to the following: Would a 58-year old man, with the same attire, etc.—but white—have been treated the same way? The question is only somewhat helpful. Interestingly, it sets up potential accusations of age-ism, sexism, and “clothes-ism” (or class-ism). Should it have mattered to Officer Crowley if Gates was 18, 38, or 88 years old? Would a similar woman have been arrested in this case? What if Gates had been dressed in a ripped t-shirt or a tuxedo?

At the end of the day, the police and our President must make vital decisions with information that is far less than ideal. Hopefully, they do the best they can with what they have—in humility and patience—drawing the best, reasonable inferences from a competent worldview, formidable character, and the best available data.

One of the main arguments for nationalized health care is a moral argument: Health care is a right and a moral and just society should ensure that its people are taken care of–and the state has the responsibility to do this. Bracketing for the time being whether health care is actually a right or not–it is clearly a good, but all goods are not necessarily rights–whether the state should be the provider of it is another question.

But there is another question as well: It is often assumed that those arguing for national health care and socialized medicine have the moral high ground and those of us who oppose it are always arguing on economic terms. I would argue that this is a ground too easily given and not deserved. While the economics are pretty clear (see Hunter Baker’s post), the moral arguments against nationalized health care are sometimes overlooked. Here are a couple of reasons why nationalized health care is in fact not a morally pure as proponents would like us to believe.

1. Handing something off to the state so citizens don’t have to take responsibility for themselves and others doesn’t doesn’t really contribute to the moral fabric of a society.
We love to talk about solidarity and the common good but too often solidarity gets turned into “let the state take care of it.” A broader and I would argue morally rich concept of the solidarity and the common good would look to human flourishing and a rich civil society and turn to the state only as the last resort.

It hurts the common good to have the state take over responsibilities that we should bear ourselves or for our fellow citizens. A large nanny state contributes to the “individualism” that Tocqueville warned about: a turning into self that isolates us from everyone but our nearest circle. If the state does everything for us then we don’t need to care about our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens. This means the breakdown of guess what–solidarity. Solidarity is the driving principle behind subsidiarity, voluntary organizations, and charity. Love of neighbor should prompt us to help each other not pass it it off to the state.

From a moral point of view, having the state take over health care breaks down solidarity and harms the common good.

2. At least equally important–how moral is a health care system based on utilitarian cost benefit calculus and consequentialism? Not very, but that’s how nationalized healthcare operates.

Think about what this means for a minute. Health care decisions are made based on cost benefit and utility which itself puts us on dangerous moral ground. This danger becomes clear when when we realize the consequences. A utilitarian, data driven or what ever you want to call it system ends up by putting pressure on the weak and especially targets the disabled and the elderly. Why? Because if decisions are make based on utility then why would we want to spend health dollars on the disabled and the elderly when their “usefulness” is minimal. Keeping the elderly and the disabled alive costs money. For Christians or other who accept the inherent dignity of life the value of this is obvious, but for secular utilitarians and a utilitarian health care system this is a waste of money–which means that after a time within a national health care system, pressure will mount to euthanize the elderly and infirm. If this sound ridiculous and conspiratorial to you I suggest that you look at Europe and what is beginning to happen there. After years of population decline Europe is a demographic disaster and guess what? Euthanasia has been legalized in three countries (Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg), is widely practiced in a fourth (Switzerland) and many pro-euthanasia advocates are starting to introduce cost-effectiveness arguments into their position.

The facts are that a state run health system, while sounding very moral, actually undermines the common good and ends up putting pressure on the unborn, the elderly, and the disabled.

Proponents of nationalized health care attempt to make emotional arguments because economic and medical data supporting their position doesn’t exist. Let us not grant them the moral high ground on this debate. Nationalized health care is scientifically, spiritually, and morally bankrupt—oh yes as Europe is demonstrating, financially bankrupt as well.

The Radio Free Acton crew is back in the studio! On today’s broadcast, Dr. Donald P. Condit and Dr. Kevin Schmiesing join our host Marc VanderMaas for a discussion of the ins and outs of the US health care system. Dr. Condit gives us some background on how the current system came into being, the problems associated with it, and the pitfalls of the current healthcare reform proposals in Washington.

Next week RFA will be back for part 2, bringing us alternate ideas for reforming the system in ways that will both increase the availability of care for all who need it and make economic sense.

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[update below] British physician Theodore Dalrymple weighs in on government healthcare and “the right to health care” in a new Wall Street Journal piece. A few choice passages:

Where does the right to health care come from? Did it exist in, say, 250 B.C., or in A.D. 1750? If it did, how was it that our ancestors, who were no less intelligent than we, failed completely to notice it?

When the supposed right to health care is widely recognized, as in the United Kingdom, it tends to reduce moral imagination. Whenever I deny the existence of a right to health care to a Briton who asserts it, he replies, “So you think it is all right for people to be left to die in the street?”

When I then ask my interlocutor whether he can think of any reason why people should not be left to die in the street, other than that they have a right to health care, he is generally reduced to silence. He cannot think of one.

Not coincidentally, the U.K. is by far the most unpleasant country in which to be ill in the Western world. Even Greeks living in Britain return home for medical treatment if they are physically able to do so.

The government-run health-care system—which in the U.K. is believed to be the necessary institutional corollary to an inalienable right to health care—has pauperized the entire population. This is not to say that in every last case the treatment is bad: A pauper may be well or badly treated, according to the inclination, temperament and abilities of those providing the treatment. But a pauper must accept what he is given.

After 60 years of universal health care, free at the point of usage and funded by taxation, inequalities between the richest and poorest sections of the population have not been reduced. But Britain does have the dirtiest, most broken-down hospitals in Europe.

[update] Also, later today we’ll be posting the first part of a conversation our multimedia manager, Marc Vander Maas, had with Kevin Schmiesing and physician Donald Condit on healthcare reform. Schmiesing is an Acton research fellow and has posted regularly on health care topics here on the PowerBlog. Condit is the author of Acton’s new monograph, A Prescription for Health Care Reform.

The Public Discourse recently published my article, Rethinking Economics in the Post-Crisis World. Text follows:

In the wake of the financial crisis, we need an economics with greater humility about its predictive power and an increased understanding of the complicated human beings who, when the discipline is rightly understood, lie at its center.

Apart from bankers and politicians, few groups have received as much blame for the 2008 financial crisis as economists. “Economists are the forgotten guilty men” was how Anatole Kaletsky, former economics editor and current editor-at-large for the London Times, put it earlier this year when explaining why “a bank with just $1 billion of capital [would] borrow an extra $99 billion and then buy $100 billion of speculative investments.”

Greed and sheer imprudence played a role, but so too, Kaletsky argued, did those (unnamed) economists who posited that their models proved that events such as the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 or Long Term Capital Management in 1998 were mathematically likely to happen once every billion years.

Kaletsky’s broader point was that contemporary mainstream economics had been sufficiently discredited by the financial crisis that the entire discipline required what he called an “intellectual revolution,” or it risked being dismissed as a rather suspect sub-branch of statistical analysis and mathematical modeling.

Kaletsky is hardly alone in arguing that economists need to rethink key aspects of their discipline. Though unwilling to call for a total paradigm shift, the Economist recently opined that the financial crisis has raised profound questions of coherence about two areas of economics: macro-economics and financial economics. “Few financial economists,” the Economist observed, “thought much about illiquidity or counterparty risk, for instance, because their standard models ignore it.” Likewise, the Economist commented, “Macroeconomists also had a blindspot: their standard models assumed that capital markets work perfectly.”

All this is certainly true. But the key expression to note here is “their standard models.” (more…)

Everybody realizes that the current healthcare system in the United States has problems. Unfortunately, much of the discussion about what to do rests on a false premise. The argument goes something like this: Our current free market system is not working: health care costs are astronomically high, and close to 50 million people aren’t insured. Maybe it’s time to let the government try its hand.

But we don’t have a free market health system; we have a highly managed, bureaucratic system that lowers the level of health care and increases costs.

As Acton’s Michael Miller argues in a new video short, the government is already involved in healthcare, and this is part of the problem. Getting the government more involved will only make the situation worse.

Blog author: ken.larson
Monday, July 27, 2009
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In the musical Camelot which first appeared on stage in 1960, Mordred — the antagonist, evil traitor and eventual deliverer of a mortal wound to King Arthur — appropriately lauds the antithesis of what good men are to pursue with his signature song titled “The Seven Deadly Virtues” the first line of which ends “those nasty little traps.”

The lyrics are clever. “Humility,” Mordred tells us, “means to be hurt. It’s not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt.” Hmmm. And the opposite of humility is — come on, all together — pride.

I had never heard of Harvard’s Professor Henry Lewis Gates Jr. until last week, but as with so many academics a quick click or two on an “.edu” web site, first to “Academics” then “Departments” and “Faculty” and voila, you’re opening up their cv online. That’s what I did this past week.

The nature of a resume or as they refer to them in academia and government work “curriculum vitae” — cv — can take lots of different forms. I’m used to seeing resumes from business people where you hope to find succinct goal/results stuff. Budgets are quoted to give the reader a sense of the scale and scope of the experiences; or growth of sales or start up schedules that paint a person who’s a can do, storm the barricades of commerce kind of guy/gal — if they’re there. I suggest resumes not exceed three pages.

Henry Gates’s cv is 27 pages long. While I’m sure there’s a condensed version somewhere you just have to skim through the document to note how he has spent his life. On the surface it’s been charmed and at variance with the titles of his articles. It’s all there, nothing it seems was deemed editable. But I focused on one thing in particular: Gates co-authoring of a book with Cornel West titled The Future of The Race. Who is Cornel West you ask? He’s the professor who left Harvard during the tenure of Larry Summers after having been asked to show up at his classes instead of sending in a grad student. After all Summers argued, Harvard was paying West nearly $400,000 and expected the man to be on site and not at lecture dates or book signings. I wonder what a faculty:student ratio at Harvard really means? In the end, West went to Princeton in a huff.

Now, back to the story.

You Are What You Eat; Play As You Practice; Your Friends Define You. These are phrases that once were needle pointed on course linen. These days they aren’t often repeated anywhere. Also neglected are the virtues they recall. The intellectual virtues are Art and Prudence and are characterized by an ordered approach toward the good. The moral virtues include Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. And the theological virtues are Faith, Hope and Charity. If you’re a math geek you’ve counted eight, not seven in this list. Correct! Mordred was focussing as do a number of us on the “moral” virtues. They include patience, meekness, modesty, piety, gratitude, affability, abstinence, sobriety, chastity, self restraint. He obviously cherry picked his list. Not alone in that, eh?

Now let’s look at the past week of national humiliation on You-Tube. A Maryland Senator blasts a constituent who was arguing that he is able to pay for his own medical expenses by suggesting that if the man gets a bill from a doctor or hospital he’ll ignore it. A junior Senator from California suggests that the President of the National Black Chamber of Commerce get in line with other black organizations and support the Obama energy plan.

Then President Obama in a hour long “news conference” suggests that doctors in the U.S. trump up ways to treat children in order to line their pockets with fees for service; and ends the week by suggesting — some might say profiling — that a police officer’s response to a suspected burglary was done stupidly.

All of this caused some to recall 2007 when the Obama campaign not wanting to be embarrassed, finally paid an assortment of parking tickets which had likely gone to “warrant” and dated back to the Presidential candidate’s student days at Harvard. Hmmm. What did that Maryland Senator accuse the constituent of?

My wife suggests that liberals often target behavior in others that they themselves are most guilty of. I’d say she’s on to something and it certainly includes ignoring the virtues. You pick which ones.

The Rome Reports news service recently interviewed me about the new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Here’s the segment, and a transcript of the interview.

Rome Reports: Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Charity in Truth is already on the list of best selling books this month. In it, the pope proposes the steps to achieve a sound economy and to avoid another economic crisis in the future.

Kishore Jayabalan: I think he is trying to change our orientation from a moral and ethical perspective, and to address economic and social affairs from a more Catholic moral perspective, sometimes we think catholic morality only has to do with marriage and family issues, or only as something that we hear about on Sundays in church.

RR: Kishore Jayabalan is an economist who directs the Acton Institute in Rome for the study of religion and freedom. He says that one of the most important points the pope stresses in building a new economy is respecting peoples rights to initiative and property.

Jayabalan: What the document refers to as breathing space, you have to let people on the grounds of subsidiarity come up with their our solutions to their own problems, they can’t all be dictated from the top down.

RR: Benedict also says the new economy should entail that globalization be a process that pursues the common good.

Jayabalan: The second thing, is that the rest of us needs to realize that globalization is a process for the good that excluding people from globalization is simply a way of spreading poverty more broadly across the world, which goes against catholic social teaching.

RR: According to Jayabalan, to solve economic problems, the theological aspect must also be included. In his encyclical, the pope explains why a relationship between God and man gives people more freedom.

Jayabalan: It allows for more freedom because it tells us that there is a relationship that the state cannot enter into, and I think this is why the encyclical refers to religious freedom for the first time in a social encyclical.

RR: But Jayabalan says that above all else, the pope seeks to unite two concepts that are often separated, respect for life and social justice. He says the popes gift to President Barack Obama the encyclical Dignitas Personae on Bioethics– clearly shows his agenda.

Jayabalan: The pro-life people tend to be on the right politically and the social justice people tend to be on the left politically and pope Benedict is trying to get us to look beyond those old categories.

RR: In short, according to Jayabalan, “Charity in Truth” is a call to work together for social justice, a goal that cannot be realized without a profound respect for human life in all its stages.

Blue pill or red pill? No, it’s not the iconic scene from The Matrix, where Neo is given the choice of staying in his computerized dream world (blue pill) or leaving the Matrix and discovering reality (red pill). It’s President Obama boiling down the complex issue of health care reform on television last night: “If there’s a blue pill and a red pill, and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half price for the thing that’s going to make you well?”

The Matrix: Blue Pill or Red Pill?

Washington Examiner columnist David Freddoso had this to say:

In last night’s press conference, President Obama seemed to be reliving that famous scene from The Matrix. The main character is offered a choice between a red pill that makes him see reality for what it is, and a blue pill that allows him to continue living in a pleasant world of illusions.

Last night, President Obama appeared to have taken the blue pill before his press conference. How else could he convince himself, the Congressional Budget Office’s numbers notwithstanding, that his health care reform bill will not increase both health care costs and the federal deficit? How else can he continue to make the argument that a massive expansion of government spending on health care will solve rather than exacerbate the current problems? How can he repeatedly express such absolute certainty that such a measure will easily pay for itself several times over in the long run? Why can he not at least acknowledge the possibility that it will become a costly and useless trillion-dollar boondoggle that follows in the footsteps of his stimulus package?

For an Acton Commentary on the problems with socialized medicine, see this piece by Dr. Donald Condit.

Also, Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, a health policy research organization, spoke at the Acton Lecture Series on the topic “Can We Repair What’s Wrong with our Health Care System through Christian Principles?” An online video of this excellent speech is available here.

A recent Fox News piece on President Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren, makes for spooky reading, dramatizing where well-intended intellectuals can end up when they take a zero-sum view of our planet’s resources.

In a 1977 course book that Holdren co-authored with environmental activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the three make an extended case for aggressive global population control. As the Fox News article explains:

Holdren and the Ehrlichs offer ideas for “coercive,” “involuntary fertility control,” including “a program of sterilizing women after their second or third child,” which doctors would be expected to do right after a woman gives birth.

“Unfortunately,” they write, “such a program therefore is not practical for most less developed countries,” where doctors are not often present when a woman is in labor.

The Most Dangerous Game

The article provides a pdf of the relevant pages of the 1977 course book (go here). Reading these several pages makes it difficult to take seriously a statement by Holdren’s office that Dr. Holdren “does not now support and has never supported compulsory abortions, compulsory sterilization, or other coercive approaches to limiting population growth.” At best, a passage at the end of 788 and the beginning of 789 suggests that the three authors would happily opt for less coercive measures, provided those measures work to their satisfaction.

Holdren and the Ehrlichs are not alone. There’s a long history, dating back at least to the 1700s, of doomsters insisting that population growth coupled with a scarcity of natural resources will very soon ruin civilization.

What’s behind this pessimism, a pessimism apparently immune to contrary historical evidence? In Acton’s new Effective Stewardship DVD curriculum, soon to be released by Zondervan (go here), Acton president Rev. Robert Sirico puts the matter in philosophical and theological context. There he argues that the problem is rooted in a false anthropology, one in which the doctrine of the imago dei is eclipsed, and with it the powerful role of human creativity:

There are many people, including religious leaders, who say that the essential problem is a problem of resource, and that if it’s a problem of resource then it’s a problem of population. This is what I call humaniphobia.

The image in the humaniphobe’s mind is that the human person is one big mouth that is constantly ingesting, and then polluting.

On such a view, humans are the problem rather than the solution. The takeaway question is this: Do we really want to hand our health care over to the U.S. government when a science adviser like Holdren has the president’s ear?