Bring on the facts, George

Bring on the facts, George August 6, 2012

Despite his almost venomous dissent from Catholic social teaching, George Weigel is certainly right about one thing: “Catholic social doctrine is a tradition of moral realism: it takes facts seriously.”

Over the past few years, the process of arguing and debating people on economic issues in particular has become incredibly frustrating. You use facts and evidence-based arguments, and wait for a factual or evidence-based response that never comes. Instead, you get slogans and ideology. This really hit me in a personal way at a friend’s wedding last month. My friend’s parents are white Americans of a certain generation. I got into a rather heated argument with the father on economics. I insisted on facts; he responded with vapid slogans that I immediately recognized as generated by Fox News and the Kochian right. I was firm and it became clear that this guy was not used to being challenged!

Why has this become such an outsized problem in the United States? I believe it is a wilful insularity, supported by a smug media that bows to the lowest common denominator to support ratings. Yes, people say and believe stupid things everywhere in the world. But their media do not reinforce their ignorance to the extent that they do here! This is relativism, pure and simple. And Weigel is of course right to point to the importance of facts and realism.

Of course, Weigel is himself not consistent here. In fact, he tends to frequently slip on the facts and fall flat on his face!

For example, I’ve caught him saying some really stupid things about health care economics over the past few years. Look at this from a few years back. Weigel is brazenly asserting that the reforms underpinning the Affordable Care Act would lead to higher public debt and higher unemployment, when all the experts and conventional wisdom point out that the reforms will lower debt. Moreover, the “job killer” nonsense has been totally debunked – this comes from a deliberate (and wilful) misreading of the CBO report. Facts matter, George, and honesty matters too.

Weigel also throws in some snark about the UK and Canadian healthcare systems. Here, he is merely appealing to the prejudices of the uniformed American instead of “taking facts seriously”. Yes, the British and the Canadians complain about their health care systems, and there are problems that need to be addressed. But people are deeply wedded to their single payer systems and look to the United States in horror (just recall the wonderful Olympics opening ceremony!). If Weigel liked facts so much, perhaps he would ask why US healthcare delivery cost more than twice the OECD average (as a percent of GDP) with worse health outcomes to show for it, including a huge number of people excluded from coverage simply bacause they cannot afford it?

Since Weigel talks all the time about government “inefficiency”, he might like to consider the huge efficiency gains and economies of scale that come with single payer systems. He might be interested in the fact that US private insurance is actually less efficient than single-payer Medicare. And while we’re on the subject, he might want to consider the differences between single-payer systems and the private-sector approach that underpins the Affordable Care Act – yes, Weigel mouths the slogan about a government takeover of healthcare. With George, it’s never really about facts, it’s the about supporting the American liberal ideology.

Let’s look at some more of his “facts”. Weigel believes the welfare state is on its last legs. He talks about this a lot, pointing to enormous demographic pressures on the system. And he has half of a point here. But he forgets to point out that most European countries have undertaken pension reforms to make the systems more sustainable in the future (as did the United States a while back). The real issue is rising health care costs, which reflects non-demographic factors and cannot be easily fixed. But this problem applies to private health care too, and it matters little whether you pay for it from higher taxes or higher premiums. Weigel is essentially dodging this argument to make an ideological point.

Let’s go further. It is a fact that the welfare state in Europe is associated with lower poverty and lower inequality. You can see this in the data. There are surely inefficiencies in the system, but it delivers on a broad level of providing income security and social cohesion – which explains its enduring popularity. (There are also inefficiencies in the private sector – why do we never hear about these?)

It is also a fact that the welfare state in Europe does not necessarily lead to economic lethargy, inefficiency, or instability. In fact, it is precisely the countries with the weakest welfare states in Europe that have the most problems today, including the highest unemployment – Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain come to mind.  Countries with the largest and strongest welfare states, like Germany and the Nordic countries, have the best economic and employment performance. Indeed, it was thanks to its Kurzarbeit program – in which people agreed to work fewer hours to save jobs, with wages subsidized by the government – that German unemployment did not go up during the crisis, even while its GDP plummeted. Meanwhile in southern Europe, one in five people (and one in two young people) are out of work. For that matter, the American liberal system is not doing too well either…

It is also a fact that the European welfare state reflects the heavy hand of Catholic social teaching, both solidarity and subsidiarity, especially in places like Germany and the Netherlands. Weigel’s American liberal biases are showing.

So sure, let’s talk about how welfare states can be made better and adapted to modern realities. But let’s have a fact-based discussion. And let’s not let the principles of American liberalism crowd out the tenets of Catholic social teaching.


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