Half Nelson

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This movie got an outstanding 91% on the Tomatometer, and Ryan Gosling got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance. Not my cup of tea, however.

Gosling plays Danny Dunne, unfortunately bearing no relation whatsoever to the science fiction whiz kid I remember fondly from my youth. Instead, Danny is a substance-abusing high-school history teacher in Brooklyn, coaching girl's basketball on the side. You might expect that even a doped-up a history teacher might be requireed to teach, you know, history, but Danny gets away with blathering to his class about Marxist dialectics. He's also a lousy coach.

This does not stop his long, slow, slide to the bottom, however. Along the way, he develops an unusual relationship with Drey, one of his female students with her own family problems.

So it's all very grim and gritty. Apparently this impressed a lot of people, but I can't understand why.

Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:54 PM EDT

How the Other Half Thinks

A weakness of mine is reading the "Letters to the Editor" section in our local newspaper, Foster's Daily Democrat.

(I assume, by the way, that a large slice of traffic to their website, www.fosters.com, is from people looking for the Aussie beer company. I wonder how much the newspaper guys could make by selling the domain name to the beer guys? Hmm…)

Anyway: a few days back, I was struck by the following letter (reproduced in its entirety):

Health care: who should decide?

To the editor:

Think about this. Who do you want making decisions about your health care? A CEO of an insurance company who makes $800,000 a year and who, if you receive less in health care, makes more money? Or a government bureaucrat who makes $90,000 a year and who, if you receive more or less in health care, makes the same money.

Think about it.

You get to decide: insurance companies make your health-care decisions or your government — which, by the way, you vote for and put in office.

Mayme Trumble

Ms. Trumble demands (twice!) that we "think about" this. So I did.

The first thing I thought was how utterly pathetic "you" are, as the consumer of health care in Ms. Trumble's vision. You are, in essence, a supplicant. Your only "choice" is in the (theoretical) selection of the detached, disinterested, individual who will thereafter literally make any life-or-death choices concerning you, you poor bastard.

The proper (and, I'd like to think, normal) response to this dilemma is, at least, a mild outrage. You (almost certainly, if you're reading this) don't need to beg for other of your life's necessities. Critical decisions on obtaining your food, clothing, employment, investments, and housing are generally not made for you by either insurance companies or government bureaucrats. You make them. How did you get stuck in such a dangerously different position for your health care? And how the hell do you get unstuck?

But Ms. Trumble doesn't want us to think such troubling thoughts; as far as she's concerned, the notion that you should want to become less dependent on others for your health care decisions is off her mental table. Just shut up and make the choice: insurance company exec or government bureaucrat? C'mon, what's your answer? She's waiting!

Let's take Ms. Trumble's choice seriously. She seems to think it's a no-brainer: obviously the government bureaucrat will be "on your side" and, ironically, she attempts to trot out an economic argument that demonstrates that.

We could quibble, by the way, with Ms. Trumble's theoretical implication that the $800K insurance company guy and the $90K bureaucrat guy would be involved in the same level of decision-making in regard to "your" health care. That seems ludicrous on its face, but she no doubt posed the issue that way to pump up the Demagogic Quotient (DQ) of her letter to the minimum standard guidelines; that's really the least of the problems with Ms. Trumble's thought experiment.

Because it's rare that any "decisions" involving your own personal health care would be made by either the bureaucrat or the CEO. In either case, you'll be "covered" by your "health plan" for any particular service, or you won't be. In the vast majority of cases, things are on routine autopilot, clearly delineated in the fine print of whatever policies or regulations apply.

[Of course, there are relatively rare exceptions at the margins, typically for exceptional and experimental treatments. Rarely, "arbitrary" decisions are made—everyone's probably seen anecdotes—but I've seen no evidence that government-bureaucrat decisions tend to cut more humanely than private ones. I would bet they probably don't, independent of the salary of the decision-maker.]

So Ms. Trumble's argument on "decisions" is not about fictional people making arbitrary health-care decisions about individuals; it's really about whether broad-scale power on health-care industry coverage and pricing should rest with government or the private sphere.

Put that way, I think the call really is a no-brainer. While our current health-care "system" is far from a free-marketer's dream, it still retains some flimsy connections to economic reality in terms of profit, prices, incentives, and costs. Ms. Trumble—despite relying on an economic-sounding incentive argument—is really advocating moving to a socialist model, where incentives and planning are moved under the coercive power of the state.

To quote one of my favorite political philosophers: "That trick never works." Or as one wag put it: socialized medicine combines the efficiency of the Post Office with the flexibility of the IRS and the warmth of the DMV. Good luck with that.

Now, lest you dismiss Ms. Trumble as just another random New Hampshire lefty crackpot: I was going to simply quote the body of the letter, omitting the name, but asking the Google for "Mayme Trumble" reveals she is actively and deeply involved in Democratic Party politics. She is, for example, the local Democratic chair in the town of Madbury (NH), and a member of the Strafford County (NH) Democratic Executive Committee. In short, it's likely Ms. Trumble's letter is representative of the quality of "thinking" that's driving the Democrat end of the health care debate. God help us. Are there any grownups over there at all?

Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:54 PM EDT