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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  • I like your post, and your argument, and I would like to share it, but would you please proofread it and make corrections? I think there are number of mistakes that would be confusing. (e.g.: I thought employment not going up in Germany during the economic crisis would be a problem, not a good thing, perhaps you mean unemployment?)

    • Thanks for this – I tried to fix some typos, please let me know if you find any more!

  • Kurt

    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.

    In a weak moment, I think Weigal confessed to that rarely admitted truth — that the Catholic Church never met a social program it didn’t like.

    As much as Americans think European social welfare systems are based on “socialism”, in fact except for the Protestant British isles and Nordic countries, European social welfare systems were designed, invented and implemented by Christian Democracy and Catholic Action. In every instance, the social democrats were out of power and the Catholics in power as social insurance programs were enacted in the Low countries, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and (for the most part) France.

    The European fondness for socialism comes not from their achievements in designing and enacting social insurance programs (as their record is weak) but social democracy’s success in extending the franchise to universal suffrage.

  • Mark VA

    It would be interesting to know what Morning’s Minion thinks about the following;

    (1) The use of Quality Adjusted LIfe Year (QALY) in the British national health delivery system,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quality-adjusted_life_year

    and

    (2) What does the Catholic social doctrine advise about setting the eventual QALY limit in our country, in terms of dollars per patient (I understand it’s currently set at 30,000 British pounds / patient in the UK).

  • You left out France in your discussion of single-payer systems. As Michael Moore showed in Sicko, almost NO ONE in France–where doctors are still honoured and beloved and make HOUSE CALLS–complains about their health care system. Remember the scene in that film where a group of AMERICAN housewives clustered around a table and lauded the better health care they were receiving in Paris than what they had experienced in America?

  • Jack

    First, I would suggest you actually share your facts, and where you got them from, instead of just declaring them to be facts as such. Second, I would suggest you familiarize yourself with Catholic Social teaching in it’s entirety, not just the parts that fit your own taste. You might then have to discuss statements such as this from “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis” (JPII):
    “Experience shows that the denial of this right [of economic initiative] or it’s limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys, the spirit of initiative, that is to say, the creative subjectivity of the citizen.” Ultimately, balance between subsidiarity and solidarity will be matters of prudential judgement. Obviously your prudential judgement differs from Weigle’s, but that is not the same as differing from the Catholic social teaching. Perhaps a little humility might make your case more effective?

    • I am quite familiar with the entirety of CST, including this encylical, including this passage. Where have I denied a right to economic initiative?

      The problem is not just differing prudential judgement. It is that Weigel does not understand subsidiairity at all, and ties it into American liberalism. Have you read Quadragesimo Anno?

    • “Experience shows that the denial of this right [of economic initiative] or it’s limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys, the spirit of initiative, that is to say, the creative subjectivity of the citizen.”

      Well then, it’s a good thing that no one of any consequence in American political life or on this blog is proposing anything like that, isn’t it?
      JPII was condemning Communism. Social democracy is NOT communism (as much as the American Political Right loves to conflate those two things, they are emphatically NOT the same thing at all).

      None of the European social democracies merit the condemnation in that quote. Later on in that section of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:

      In the place of creative initiative there appears passivity, dependence and submission to the bureaucratic apparatus which, as the only “ordering” and “decision-making” body – if not also the “owner”- of the entire totality of goods and the means of production, puts everyone in a position of almost absolute dependence, which is similar to the traditional dependence of the worker-proletarian in capitalism. This provokes a sense of frustration or desperation and predisposes people to opt out of national life, impelling many to emigrate and also favoring a form of “psychological” emigration.

      JPII clearly has in mind a situation in which an economy in toto is controlled by a bureaucratic state (e.g., Cold-War-era Poland), not the socialization of certain functions like healthcare or daycare.

  • anonymous

    Of course, none of these are ‘facts’

    …. 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.

  • Chuck

    But it is also a fact that the largest European country (Germany) is only one-quarter the size of the United States. Britian is one-fifth the size and Canada is smaller than California. The success of European models that they are unique to the (usually small) dynamics of that jurisdiction. The population of Sweden is the same size as the Chicago metro area — nothing stops a municipal sub-unit or region within the U.S. of setting up a “social democracy” model. I strongly question whether the United States on a federal level can effecuate well social democracy models — it needs to be done more locally and regionally. The first left-leaning State or county to set this up I will applaud. The irony is that many rural counties which are far from left-wing have set up very good community oriented health systems which are responsive to the people.

    • rbk

      What an empty argument!
      “We’re too big … so we’ll only look after the top nn percent.”
      Does that sound like Catholic social teaching to you?

      • Chuck

        That’s not my point. Health care measures should be enacted by States and local municipalities. Why does it take a federal solution? Why doesn’t a State move forward on its own? I understand Vermont is considering that, and great for them.

    • Kurt

      It is usually argued that social insurance benefits from larger rather than smaller pools. I don’t know what the basis is for the reverse.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Weigel’s American “liberal” bias? Weigel – Liberal????

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