Sunday, August 08, 2010

Rush Limbaugh and William Shatner Debate Health Care

I understand that I'm running the risk here of appearing to be headed toward an all Star Trek all the time format, but, apparently, Shatner's got this new talk show, and he manages to make an extraordinarily good point with The Big Fat Racist Drug Addict.

Crooks and Liars:

SHATNER: Here’s my premise, and you agree with it or not. If you have money, you are going to get health care. If you don’t have money, it’s more difficult.

LIMBAUGH: If you have money you’re going to get a house on the beach. If you don’t have money, you’re going to live in a bungalow somewhere.

SHATNER: Right, but we’re talking about health care.

LIMBAUGH: What’s the difference?

SHATNER: The difference is we’re talking about health care, not a house or a bungalow.

LIMBAUGH: No. No. You’re assuming that there is some morally superior aspect to health care than there is to a house.

SHATNER: No, I’m not moral at all. I want to keep the subject, for the moment, on the health care thing.

here for video.

Set aside, for this post anyway, the fact that lots of specifics make consumer and producer behavior in the field of health care radically different from behavior in, say, the soap or automobile markets, which means that an honest discussion on the topic must necessarily be radically different from most other economic discussions. What I'm interested in is this notion of morality and economics.

Years ago, I met a right-wing economist during the Reagan era at a Rotarian hosted seminar on the ideologically loaded and widely distributed document known as "The Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom." That's an entire story in itself, but one of the things that has nagged at me since then is this guy's assertion that the field of economics is not, and cannot be, concerned with any moral questions at all: economists simply describe economic reality, and the moral decisions are left to the politicians.

Of course, such an assertion is obviously false at face value. Declaring oneself to be amoral is, in fact, a moral decision. Indeed, the notion of "amorality" is so riddled with problems as to make the term virtually meaningless. Like it or not, humans are moral creatures, and we do not simply leave the sense of right and wrong at the office door as we head for our desks. I mean, I totally dig economists or journalists or scientists trying to remain as objective as possible in their observations and reporting, but the information they release to the public has moral consequences, and they're total fools if they make themselves believe that they bear no responsibility for that.

Actually, they're immoral fools if they think they have no responsibility for the intellectual work they produce. This side-stepping of moral issues in economics drives me nuts. It allows the economist the smug superiority he needs to make recommendations to corporations and politicians that drive thousands of people out of work, or off farms that have been in the family for generations, or into the desperation of prostitution or murder, or...well, you get the idea. The economist can sit back in his plush office chair, put his feet on his desk, and say "You know, it's good for the economy."

Really? From the perspective of the Indian subsistence farmer who is contemplating suicide because an international corporation has gamed local laws in order to steal his land, it sure does appear to be bad for the economy.

Indeed, closely related to this fictional stance of amorality is the bogus notion of market efficiency. It functions as a sort of backdoor moral excuse: "Yes, such measures will cause temporary disruption of workers' lives, but in the long run, the economy grows, and these people are able to reap an even bigger bounty than they were getting before." Yeah yeah. A rising tide lifts all the boats. So the theory goes. Except that it doesn't. I mean sure, sometimes it does, but when you consider the last thirty years of neoliberal reforms in this country that have caused wages to stagnate and even decrease in inflation-adjusted terms, that have caused great worker insecurity, that have made the concept of the single bread-winner family a thing of the past, that have effectively laid the groundwork for the elimination of the middle class as we understand it, it becomes achingly clear that the wealthy and powerful have perfected their ability to keep all that wonderful tide water to themselves.

That is, when economists talk about market efficiency, they never state for whom the market ought to be efficient. The kind of efficiency that makes the rich get richer while the poor get poorer is all so much Orwellian euphemism.

So yeah. Health care does have "a morally superior aspect" to it relative to other consumer products: people don't die when they can't afford toothpaste to brush their teeth; people do die when they don't have access to health care. And frankly, I think that I, and William Shatner, are necessarily morally superior to Rush Limbaugh for understanding that. But then, that's like saying I'm better than Judas or Hitler. Kind of an exercise in understatement.