Vice President Joe Biden is the gift that keeps on giving. You really can’t say that he’s put his foot in his mouth again. That would suggest there’s some other place for it. Biden has said the Obama administration “misread” the numbers on how bad the economy was.
Well, they had the full cooperation of the Bush administration in what all acknowledge to have been the most cooperative transfer of power in history. Why did they misread?
Now, the operative question is this: Has Obama’s team also misread the numbers on health care reform? The big number, the number which drives all the other numbers is 45.7 million. That’s the number of Americans said to be lacking health insurance. If that number is accurate, it’s still less than one in six Americans. But is it accurate?
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will has raised serious questions about that 45.7 million figure. He notes that 39% of the uninsured live in the border states of California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Florida. An estimated 21% of the uninsured are not U.S. citizens. That’s 9.7 million, a huge chunk of that fabled 45.7 million figure.
A further 9.1 million of the uninsured have household incomes of $75,000 or greater. These folks could afford insurance but choose not to be insured. There are, Will notes, 14 million Americans who are already eligible for currently funded programs — like SCHIP, veterans’ benefits, Medicare, and Medicaid.
The more closely we examine these figures, the more that number of 45.7 million begins to melt away, like an iceberg floating south. As long as there have been governments, they have been mesmerized by numbers — some of which prove to be seriously inaccurate.
Winston Churchill wrote about one of the most celebrated examples of government’s self-deception by numbers. During World War I, the British Admiralty weighed in strongly against a convoy system for their merchant ships to meet the threat of death-by-strangulation from Germany’s U-boats. The great and powerful Sea Lords said there was no way the Royal Navy could protect all 2,500 voyages per week of merchant ships with their small number of 50-60 Navy destroyers. Convoys would not work, the Sea Lords said adamantly.
With the very life of his country at stake, Churchill showed how the Admiralty’s numbers did not hold up. Those 2,500 voyages per week actually included thousands of small ships plying their usual coastal trade. The absolutely essential overseas trade — Britain’s lifeline — consisted of no more than 120-140 voyages a week. “The whole edifice of [the Sea Lords’] logical argument collapsed when the utterly unsound foundation of 2,500 was shorn away,” Churchill wrote. Convoys were instituted — and saved Britain.
Will the crisis atmosphere about health care also dissipate in the hot glare of more accurate numbers? Will we find the crisis to be rather like that southbound iceberg, or like the Admiralty’s inflated 2,500-voyage figure?
We may not think the life of America is in as great jeopardy now as Churchill’s Britain was when menaced by the U-boat. But it surely is. If we take a giant step toward government control of health care, we will step irretrievably closer to a regime where government decides who shall live and who shall die. That is a menace quite as threatening as a ring of hostile U-boats.
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