Thursday, February 15, 2007

More on Obama: in response to Mr. Tweedy

Mr. Tweedy has an entry on Barack Obama which mentions my own entry on the subject several times. We have substantially different political opinions, so it's not really surprising to find that he disagrees with me on many points. But there are two in particular that I'd like to respond to - and not so much to Mr. Tweedy personally, but rather just because they raise general issues relevant to Obama's candidacy that need to be discussed.

The first of these concerns his race. Mr. Tweedy writes in his introduction:

Just the gimmick of a black president gives me the giggles because I think it would say something about how times have changed. But that in itself is no reason to elect one.

I'm not sure I would have used the word "giggles," but I largely agree with the sentiment here. It is indeed cool to have a serious black candidate for president. However, to quote a mediocre but highly entertaining movie - "these aren't the droids you're looking for."

Even indulging a fantasy about a black president (which Mr. Tweedy rightly says is not a good reason to elect anyone), I'm not sure that Obama is the real deal here.

First of all, I don't think the real barrier to electing a black president is us white people anymore. White America overcame its racism problem a long time ago, and everyone knows it. Give us a serious black candidate, and all other things being equal, he has a slight advantage with us. I'm not denying that America used to be a very racist place - far from it. But that was a generation ago. Flashforward to the present day, and what you find is that white Americans are willing - in fact eager - to hire qualified blacks, actively seek them out as friends, consume their culture arguably with more dedication than blacks themselves do, are very generous with tax money for funding race education, cultural development and general economic improvement programs, are extremely careful (probably too much so) to avoid being offensive both in public and private, are willing to take all kinds of verbal abuse from minorities, make endless excuses for the low achievement levels in the black community, and constantly apologize for the sins of their ancestors. Black America has no greater friend than White America - strange as that would have seemed 40 years ago. Are there white racists? Well sure, of course. And there always will be. The point is that this is a fringe opinion these days. I don't see any evidence that there is more white racism in America than in most other places in the world. Perhaps there is more racial violence here than in Western Europe - but there is more violence here in general than in Western Europe.

The barrier to a serious black presidential candidate - ironically enough - comes from the black lobby, which is on the whole not a serious political lobby. It clings to outdated perceptions of the "problem" (which largely no longer exists) and seriously outdated ideas for solutions. Mostly what black politicians seem to want is endless "education" about the non-existent "problem" and even more free money to (supposedly) deal with it. Racism is more a perceptual issue these days than an actual one. What I'm talking about here, of course, is the fact that (a) the Black Community doesn't seem very enthusiastic about Obama and (b) that anyone cares what any "community" thinks about a presidential candidate in the first place. But the truth is that black political opinion is heavily manipulated by race-baiting hucksters. Obama isn't in their union, and so the normal spin doctors aren't putting in overtime for him. It really is that simple.

A black president will "say something about how times have changed" - something meaningful about how times have changed - only then when he can win with just over half of the black vote - you know, roughly what he needs from white people to win. It's not a sign of progress AT ALL when a significant minority of the population will vote for someone just because he's "one of them," and measures how much "one of them" he is by how many handouts he's prepared to offer them.

Second, Obama isn't an "African American" in the standard use of that term anyway. He's rather the Hollywood elite's vision of the ideal black man. You know, no slave ancestors, more "African" than "American," oh yeah and has a white mom so he's not TOO black. In short, the kind of black dude that Liberals like. (Sorry, I guess that will offend some people, but I'm pretty convinced that the average Liberal is more likely to be racist than the average Conservative - Tinseltown stereotypes to the contrary.) Obama doesn't exactly trip the race radar of what white racists there are. If you're looking for a black symbol of "how times have changed," better he be from the South, dark-skinned, and not have any foreign-born parents. (However, foreign-born parents in a mixed-race marriage is a different, and probably better, symbol of "how times have changed.")

The other thing I wanted to talk about was the stuff Mr. Tweedy has to say about Big Guv-funded healthcare.

Same disclaimer as before: I realize that Mr. Tweedy isn't offering an actual argument for Big Guv Healthcare in his post - just rather noting that he supports it. It's to his credit that he wants details from Obama before jumping on the bandwagon. That said, there are a couple of standard weak arguments and perceptions in his post that, whether or not Mr. Tweedy is actually personally peddling them, will feature prominently in the upcoming (and probably unavoidable) rebirth of the debate over National Health Insurance and bear discussion on that basis.

Canada and most of Western Europe are able to pull it off and remain relatively wealthy.

This is a pretty piss-poor standard for supporting a public policy. The relevant question isn't whether we can do something and "remain relatively wealthy." In fact, the very fact that any argument is framed in these terms sort of betrays a mind already made up for other reasons. Look, we are able to maintain a hugely expensive armed forces and fight inefficient and costly wars in all corners of the globe and "still remain relatively wealthy." That's a wholly separate question from whether we should. "Still remain relatively wealthy" as good as admits that we're worried about bankrupting ourselves over this - and well we should be. Medicare - NOT the military - is currently the most expensive portion of our budget, the portion that is mostly likely to run our debt to unsustainable levels.

The REAL standard for public policy judgements should be the same as it is in business: does it pass a cost-benefit analysis? Is what we're buying with our proposed Socialist healthcare in some important way better than what we have now? It isn't AT ALL clear that it would be. THAT - establishing that it's a good idea in the first place, an improvement in the first place - is where this debate has to begin. Phrasing things in terms of "we can do it without completely bankrupting ourselves" sort of says to me that the person giving the argument has already bought into an unstated assumption that national healthcare is a "good" thing. Prove this please, THEN we'll haggle over costs (which, by the way, WILL be huge - and this in a country that can't pay its budgetary bills as they stand).

In fact, Finland pulls it off along with absolutely free (and impressive) secondary education and still has only a slightly lower GNI ($37,460) than the United States ($43,740).

This is even less convincing than the other one. America, it need hardly be pointed out, is not Finland. Not even remotely. What works for Finland says essentially nothing about what will work for the US. Even assuming this were an existence proof that functional national healthcare were possible (and it's not, by the way - Finland has recently come under criticism from the OECD for its healthcare system), you would still be a long way from proving that the Finland's "success" can be duplicated in the US.

To put a fine point on it - Finland also has the third-highest rate of firearms possession in the world (behind the US and Yemen), and yet gun crimes are virtually nonexistent in Finland but frequent here. Canada also has a very high rate of gun ownership - complete with the same kinds of lax restrictions on purchase that exist in the US - and regularly does pretty well on the criminality index. Direct comparisons of this kind don't work - at least not at this simplistic of a level. There are huge numbers of other variables that have to be controlled for.

If you want to know about public healthcare in general, it's not sufficient to cherry-pick a country you wish you lived in and assume that what works there will work for the US. What you need to do instead is look at public healthcare systems in general. Do they work in general? What is the big picture? And the big picture is pretty damn bleak.

Another respectable approach to the problem would be to look at countries with similar cultures and political histories. And again, this picture looks pretty bleak. The UK and Canada have notoriously awful public healthcare systems. Somehow I think we're more likely to end up looking like these places than like Germany or Finland.

But of course the most solid question to ask yourself is whether you trust the government you actually have (and not the Finnish government - which I shouldn't have to point out is a deeply foreign government) to manage your healthcare system. I don't see why anyone would trust the American government to manage their healthcare for them. I mean Christ - our government does such a shitty job managing everything else! You have to be a in a position to really use your imagination to think that it's all going to be better when it's - you know - healthcare as opposed to education, or prisons, or national energy policy. As Ronald Reagan once famously said:

A government can't control the economy without controlling people.

There is no way to dispute this - it's simply true. You can't control the economy without controlling people. The question you have to ask yourself is - are you willing to be controlled even more than you already are for the price of what will, in all likelihood, turn out to be a pretty crappy health insurance policy?

Now again, let me restate my disclaimer. Mr. Tweedy isn't actually offering these second-rate arguments for healthcare polcy. He supports national healthcare for what are, I assume, respectable reasons (that I'm sure I nevertheless disagree with) that he hasn't mentioned in his post. I'm just saying that these are the terms in which the debate always has been in the past and probably will be in the future framed. That is - "country x has a decent national healthcare system, we can too!" And "we can afford this" - without any mention of why we'd want it. These are approaches I frequently hear from Democrats and fully expect to hear from Edwards, Rodham-Clinton, and Obama in the 2008 Social Democracy Party - erm, Democractic Party Primary in 2008. I think it's important that The Distinguished Opposition draw attention to this shaky foundation and head it off so that we can have a substantive debate about national healtcare before we mortgage our future on yet another stupid welfare state experiment of the kind that history has amply demonstrated does NOT, in fact, function in reality.

A couple of closing words about Finland. Finland's healthcare system is not, as it turns out, financed primarily by the federal government. It's one of the more decentralized (and also least expensive) national healtcare systems in the world. Most of the funding is left up to municipalities, and a not-insignificant portion of it (roughly 26%) is privately paid - a much higher rate than in the "rest" of Scandinavia (yes, yes, Finland is not Scandinavian, I KNOW!), or in Canada (the country whose healthcare system we are most likely to emulate - and arguably the MOST socialized system in the developed world. Private funding in the Canadian system is 0% as it is illegal to get private healthcare in that basketcase of a country.). Finland charges significant "user fees" for health services and has been quietly privatizing for the past 15 or so years (since the economic crisis of the early 90s ended - and privatization had actually started before then and was rolled back because of the associated 20% unemployment rate.).

If we must have national healthcare (and I still need to see an argument that we must), we could do a lot worse than learn from Finland, I suppose. It seems to have done a pretty good job with this, as these things go. Unfortunately, I think it extremely unlikely that the Finnish system would be taken as a model here. Whatever opportunisitc pol ends up selling us on this crap will no doubt want to do lots of gimmicky things like issue "national health insurance cards" (probably with pictures of the flag and the Liberty Bell) "guaranteeing" that "every American is protected." That alone will require all sorts of federal meddling in the system. I should add that Finland, and indeed every other national health system in the world save probably the UK, socialized its medical system over a long period of time. I don't think any of the smooth talkers in the next election are willing to tiptoe into the water. They'll want it by tomorrow - and that's something to worry about.


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