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It’s Worse Than I Thought

February 26th, 2005 · No Comments

I already posted a few comments at Hit and Run prompted by Jon Chait’s silly piece in the last New Republic and Will Wilknson’s good reply. But now that I’ve had a chance to read the piece more closely, I notice it’s significantly dimmer than I’d realized.

First, kind of a nitpick:

Among other problems, health insurance firms have every incentive to deny coverage to those most likely to get sick, which makes the individual health insurance market inefficient and prohibitively expensive. Economists call this phenomenon “adverse selection,” and it is inherent in the private health care market.

Now, I’m no economist, and Chait’s beat is wonky healthcare stuff, but either he doesn’t understand what adverse selection is, or does a criminally crappy job explaining it. Insurance firms hoping to deny coverage to the risky clients is emphatically not “adverse selection,” and while we might think it’s inhumane, it’s not per se inefficient, any more than a bank denying a loan to someone who seems like a poor risk. Adverse selection refers to the phenomenon, caused by the buyer’s more intimate knowledge of his own medical profile, wherein those most likely to get sick (attempt to) buy the most insurance—more or less the opposite of what Chait’s talking about—though arguably insurance firms’ attempts to compensate for the adverse selection problem could cause secondary problems of that sort. Not particularly important to the thrust of the piece, but a little telling in light of a discussion of conservatives’ uninformed prattling about healthcare.

Then there’s this:

It’s not a coincidence that the two most economically liberal Republican presidents–Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford–also displayed the most serious interest in empiricism.

Now, call me crazy, but making Nixon your poster boy here seems like a dubious move. It’s not just conservatives who’ve “renounced Nixon’s economic record,” and, indeed, his enthusiasm for price controls probably illustrates the Hayekian problem I mentioned in the H&R post above: Get bogged down in the technocratic details and price controls will tend to sound like a good idea, because the benefits are immediate and quantifiable, while the damage they do comes in the form of information suppressed.

Finally, a different objection to a line Will also plucked out:

This preference for removing power from Washington is simply something that either you accept or you don’t. It’s neither right nor wrong in an absolute sense. It does, however, make empirical reasoning pointless.

Isn’t this a form of the kind of anti-intellectualism that’s supposed to be the province of conservatism? It’s actually a decent illustration of something Marty Peretz says in the TNR piece immediately following Chait’s in the same issue:

For several years, the liberal agenda has looked and sounded like little more than a bookkeeping exercise. We want to spend more, they less. In the end, the numbers do not clarify; they confuse. Almost no one can explain any principle behind the cost differences.

Now, I’ll agree that at some point, any moral argument is going to hit bottom—some premise(es) that can’t themselves be defended. You either agree or not. But I also tend to think these are extremely general things like: “Other people matter, and matter equally.” And even there, I think there’s at least something one can say, if not to the determined moral skeptic, then at least to someone unsettled by a skeptical critique.

But the idea that opposition to larger government is some kind of “preference” that “either you accept or you don’t”—an atomic brute fact, like a taste for strawberries or sardines—just seems insanely lazy. In order to place empirical debate on the throne, Chait ends up sort of blithely assuming that genuinely moral deliberation—reasoning about what’s valuable as opposed to strictly instrumental reasoning about the best means to agreed-upon ends—is just useless. It seems to suppose that the sort of discussion that constitutes much of the real argument (non-wonk) people carry on, both in conversation and in books, either doesn’t happen or is simply misguided. If that’s what Chait thinks, it’d be nice to at least get a kind of meta-argument to that effect, but it’s glossed over so quickly I’m not even sure he thinks that he thinks it. It’s just a background assumption. It’ll have to get dragged out into the foreground if that crew’s interested in doing something to change the kind of sterility Peretz sees.

Tags: Journalism & the Media