Archived Posts September 2009 - Page 3 of 3 | Acton PowerBlog

Our latest health care video short is up: “Why Consumer-Driven Healthcare Beats Socialized Healthcare.” And John Hinderaker of Powerline has an incisive analysis of the president’s speech last night to a joint session of Congress. The passage that stood out to me was this one about competition:

This seems to me to be the most critical moment in Obama’s speech:

My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75% of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies. In Alabama, almost 90% is controlled by just one company. Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down.

In fact, Obama and Congressional Democrats have zero interest in increasing choice and competition. If they did, there is an easy solution. There are over 1,000 health insurance companies in the United States; why do you think it is that in Alabama, one company has 90 percent of the business? It is because there are major legal obstacles to insurance companies operating across state lines. State legislatures, and lots of the companies, like it this way. Competition is hard. But if Obama really wanted to expand “choice and competition” in health care, all he would have to do is go along with the Republican proposal to allow health insurance companies to sell on a national basis. Like, say, computer companies, beer companies, automobile companies, law firms, and pretty much everyone else.

The video and transcript of President Obama’s speech is available here. And more Acton analysis of healthcare policy is available here.

My commentary on Western Europe’s fascination with Marxist symbolism was published today on the Web site of the Acton Institute. Excerpt:

Marxism, we’re often told, is dead. While Communism as a system of authoritarian power still exists in countries like China, Marxism’s contemporary hold over people’s minds, many claim, is nothing compared to its glory days between the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917 and the Berlin Wall’s fall twenty years ago.

In many respects, such observations are true. But in other senses, they are not. We need only look at Western Europe—the place where Marxist thought first emerged and took root. One trivial, albeit disturbing sign is many young West Europeans’ willingness to wear t-shirts emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle or Che Guevara images. If you want confirmation of this, just take a stroll through downtown Amsterdam, Stockholm, or Rome.

No doubt, in many cases the t-shirt images are simply reflections of youthful rebelliousness. But it’s difficult to refrain from asking wearers of such clothing whether they also possess a t-shirt inscribed with the Nazi swastika. They would surely be deeply offended at such a suggestion. But their willingness to parade the hammer and sickle reflects either historical ignorance or a failure to accept that it is as much a symbol of terroristic criminal regimes as the swastika: just ask any survivors of Stalin’s Gulag, Vietnam’s “re-education” camps, or the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.

Then there is the persistent grip of Marxist-inspired mythology on Western Europe’s historical imagination. A good example is Karl Marx’s presentation of nineteenth-century capitalism as a period in which a small group became wealthy and millions were impoverished. This remains an article of faith for the European left and some on the European right.

Read “Marxism’s Last (and First) Stronghold,” on the main Acton Institute Web site.

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
By

On the weekend I read the text of the talk Barack Obama gave on Tuesday to a public school in Virginia and through the medium of technology to students throughout the nation who wished to see and hear him on their school televisions. I think of Ray Bradbury’s story “Fahrenheit 451″ and plasma walls at times like these.

I’ve written over the years as have others on the errors of having a Federal Department of Education and the Obama speech and it’s reach into the classrooms of America’s kids is an example of why so many have tried to rid our country of that intrusive and unnecessary bureaucracy. Despite Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of the speech as essentially “conservative” — I beg to differ.

The speech was undeniably an intrusion by the federal government directly into the neighborhood school with its end run around the district and state school boards — the remaining link parents have with the public school. School board members are traditionally elected. This, no matter its content, rules the talk anti-conservative.

Many will cleaverly dissect the speech because it is full of so much to ridicule as it pertains to Obama’s actual life and it’s containment of obvious errors, for example pointing out to children that they may be the next inventor of an iphone as an enticement to stay in school when it is well known that both Apple’s and Microsoft’s creators were college dropouts; but that’s not the point of this essay. My point is to illustrate how much the material world and the “me” culture has become a part of the American culture; and to possibly redirect some to consider an alternative.

“The story of America,” Obama says toward his conclusion, “isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best. It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation.”

That’s just isn’t true. Only a relatively small percentage of the Colonists pressed for Independence in 1776 and a central government thirteen years later. And no one’s kids were forced to go to school by the state as they are now. It’s an important piece because it illustrates how much in balance freedom is with the truth, and how important it is to lead others to the truth if they are to remain free. Is this what’s happening in our public schools these days?

About one-third into the talk Obama says, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.”

That’s a heavy load to put on K-12 kids considering the fact that over 40 percent of those “graduating” from public high school lack grade profficiency in math and composition and many who get into college must take remedial writing and math classes just to stay in school. On the basis of those results, kids have been granted diplomas who quite possibly cannot work out in their mind — and certainly not on paper — what their or the nation’s greatest challenges might or should be. Might it be contended that they don’t know how to think? to reason?

“I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve,” Mr. Obama says. “But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”

“And that’s what I want to focus on today,” he continues, “the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.”

In an article on the kerfuffle “the speech” was causing The Wall Street Journal reported that “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that some of the materials provided to local school officials were poorly worded and may have lead to some confusion about the speech’s goals.” Not the kind of admission you want to make as the director of a federal bureaucracy already at least partially responsible for launching a generation of functional illiterates into remedial programs.

In numerous articles and books, Fr. James V. Schall has written on the life of the mind. Those of the Judeo-Christian tradition are guided by rules. “Do not lie” requires knowledge of The Truth and for one seriously considering piety begins a life long inquiry of The Truth.

Contrast Mr. Obama’s responsiblity you have to yourself with Fr. Schall’s response to a question in an August 2005 interview “…by reading or teaching, we are at best brought to the banks of the river of intellect as it flows on. When we jump in, we sink or swim by ourselves. But we already have a mind that, as mind, is ours, not of our own making. This mind is not given to us to think whatever we wish, but to think whatever is true. If what we wish is not true, it is no virtue to stick to our wishes. Tests of truth exist. We should know them.”

Obama says, “But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher.”

And so we return to that “me” culture, the essence of which is what is good for me, what is it that I want. And this is so totally different from what parents who kept their children away on Tuesday want and in the pursuit of which we should hope that God will grant His blessings.

In what deserves to be considered a modern classic, Lester DeKoster writes on the relationship between work and stewardship. These reflections from God’s Yardstick ought to be remembered this Labor Day:

The basic form of stewardship is daily work. No matter what that work may be. No matter if you have never before looked upon your job as other than a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial. Know that the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more you will to persevere schools the soul.

Here is a sense of work as soul-forming that anticipates the contemporary Shop Class as Soulcraft discussion.

But beyond the formation of the individual worker’s soul, the order of work has consequences for the larger society.

Work knits the fabric of civilization. We take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.

Those record numbers of people who are unemployed on this Labor Day in 2009 certainly need no reminders about the blessings that work offer.

DeKoster also provides needed perspective about what we can and cannot accomplish in this life, and how what we do has eternal consequences.

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

I’ve begun a series of articles that take a close look at Pope Benedict’s new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. In this first article, which focuses on the opening chapter, I examine the moral realism of this pope, a realism that transcends the easy categories of politics and social theory.

[Benedict’s] theory about Truth is not his own, but the traditional teaching of the Church, as it comes to us from the Apostles and as it has been safeguarded and interpreted over the centuries. His theory is quite simply that every person longs for both truth and love. This longing can never be suppressed, in spite of modern pretensions to being ever-so-above-it-all. “All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person” (no. 1). Therefore, we will never be able to completely suppress the human desire to know the truth and to live in accordance with it.

Benedict’s perspective on Truth has its own view of human freedom as well as of the human good. “Each person find his good by adherence to God’s plan for him,… in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free.” Two possible objections come to mind, from opposite intellectual poles. From the relativist side, we can practically hear the sophisticated eye-rolling over the idea that freedom means anything other than “doing as I please.” But consider these reasons why it is reasonable to follow God’s plan for our lives: (1) God knows more than we do; (2) He has the good of more people in mind, whereas honestly, most of us are mostly thinking of ourselves most of the time; and (3) He has a longer time horizon.

Read Caritas in Veritate: The Truth about Humanity” on the Acton Institute’s Caritas resource page.

I welcome your comments.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.

But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.

One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)

This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.

Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.

This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.

And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”

I take a look at the way corn subsidies skew our eating habits — and not always for the good of our health — in this week’s Acton Commentary. Excerpt:

Government policy-makers regularly prove themselves to be unwise decision-makers by continuing to introduce arbitrary agricultural price distortions that create incentives for producing unhealthy food through farm subsidies. Perhaps the most effective national health care initiative moving forward would be allowing markets to function so that people can make better food choices.

We cannot be good stewards of our bodies or nature if we do not have accurate information. Prices help to convey that information. For example, what would happen if the market determined actual corn prices? Not subsidizing corn would cause a needed price correction. Perhaps our hamburger value-meals would adjust in price creating disincentives to eat fast-food. Without corn and other agricultural subsidies, maybe the price of meat would adjust to a point encouraging different choices benefiting us all in the long-run. Maybe, for example, eating a 72-once steak at the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas would be too expensive to consider.

While individuals are ultimately responsible to exercise good stewardship in choosing what and how much to eat, incentives can be distorted by government meddling in the market. Dr. Barry Sears, author of Toxic Fat: When Good Fat Turns Bad, argues, “The problem lies with America’s continually subsidizing of corn and soybean production.” Government subsidies generate “an oversupply of cheap refined carbohydrates and cheap vegetable oils that when combined give rise to increased diet-induced inflammation.” This inflammation in turn “activates the genes in people who are genetically predisposed to gain weight with relative ease,” giving rise to all the health problems connected to excessive weight. Medical spending for obesity is estimated to have reached $147 billion in 2008, an 87 percent increase in the past decade.

Read “Too Much Government Makes Us Sick” on the Acton Web site and come back here for comments.

[UPDATE BELOW] I discussed the creepy side of President Obama’s “science czar” here. But there are more creepy things in the cabinet. The Wall Street Journal reports that the president’s health policy adviser, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, wants to implement an Orwellian-sounding “complete lives system,” which “produces a priority curve on which individuals aged roughly 15 and 40 years get the most substantial chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.”

The WSJ piece continues:

Dr. Emanuel says that health reform will not be pain free, and that the usual recommendations for cutting medical spending (often urged by the president) are mere window dressing. As he wrote in the Feb. 27, 2008, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA): “Vague promises of savings from cutting waste, enhancing prevention and wellness, installing electronic medical records and improving quality of care are merely ‘lipstick’ cost control, more for show and public relations than for true change.”

True reform, he argues, must include redefining doctors’ ethical obligations. In the June 18, 2008, issue of JAMA, Dr. Emanuel blames the Hippocratic Oath for the “overuse” of medical care.

Now a freer healthcare market could take care of rationing much more simply, while providing increased incentives for healthcare providers to provide better value to choosey consumers. The problem is, a freer healthcare market wouldn’t route power through Washington.

And yes, it is more about power than about wanting to spread scarce healthcare services around more equally. Otherwise, the government would pursue something like healthcare tax credits for lower and middle income Americans. And they would pursue meaningful tort reform to curtail wasteful defensive medicine and the regressive transfer of wealth from consumers (who pay higher medical costs) to wealthy trial lawyers.

And no, I’m not proposing that these power-hungry politicians are monsters. Most are probably sincerely convinced that their increased power will help them pursue the greater good down the road. It’s just that others have been down this road before, and it isn’t pretty.

UPDATE: Longtime medical ethicist Wesley J. Smith has a nuanced look at Dr. Emanuel here. The post concludes:

[H]e explicitly advocates rationing based on what appears to be a quality of life measurement. From the piece [in the Hastings Center Report]:

This civic republican or deliberative democratic conception of the good provides both procedural and substantive insights for developing a just allocation of health care resources. Procedurally, it suggests the need for public forums to deliberate about which health services should be considered basic and should be socially guaranteed. Substantively, it suggests services that promote the continuation of the polity-those that ensure healthy future generations, ensure development of practical reasoning skills, and ensure full and active participation by citizens in public deliberations-are to be socially guaranteed as basic. Conversely, services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens are not basic and should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.

A lot of people are frightened that someone who thinks like Emanuel is at the center of an administration seeking to remake the entire health care system. Having read these two articles, I think there is very real cause for concern.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
By

Ron Sider: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Jim Wallis: “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

Saleem H. Ali, a ‘pro-consumption environmentalist’ at the University of Vermont “argues that sometimes a nation has to extract a nonrenewable resource like oil, or tricky-to-recycle metals and gems, in order to leapfrog from dire poverty to a more diversified economy.”

“Money from oil wealth can be used to invest in other sectors. And that in turn can yield sustainable development,” Ali says.

Awhile back I sketched very briefly a view of the theological purpose of fossil fuels. On this view, “fossil fuels would thus have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.”

This meshes nicely with the Cornwall Declaration’s statement that “A clean environment is a costly good; consequently, growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement. The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.”