In my discussions with people on serious and controversial topics, I have some simple rules of thumb to tell me tell whether the discussion is worth pursuing or whether the other person is not serious and talking further is a waste of time.
For example, when discussing evolution, as soon as someone says something along the lines of Mel Gibson’s “If we descended from monkeys, then how come there are still monkeys? How come apes aren’t people yet?” then you know that you are dealing with someone who is either being willfully dishonest or is so ignorant of the basic facts of the topic under discussion that it is not worth continuing unless one is willing to spend a lot of time to bring that person up to speed. The wrongful use of the second law of thermodynamics is another example of a warning sign.
A similar situation applies to global warming when, during a cold or snowy spell someone triumphantly suggests that this has conclusively proven that global warming is a myth.
In discussing politics, the signal is when one makes a criticism of some action of the US government (such as its decision to ignore habeas corpus, or to invade Iraq, or its numerous covert destabilization actions in other countries) and the other person replies “If you don’t like it, then why don’t you go to Russia/France/China/Cuba/Sweden/(fill in the blank for whatever other country the speaker does not like)?”
In all these cases, the signs are clear that there has been no attempt by the other person to really engage with the issue and he or she has resorted to what he or she thinks is a clever debating point but in actuality has little or no content behind it.
In the case of the debates over the merits of a universal, government run, single-payer health care system, the signal that someone is not serious is when he or she trots out the waiting times for hip replacements in Canada as an argument about how the Canadian system is so terrible in comparison to the US. In the wake of the release of Michael Moore’s film Sicko, we can expect to see this being trotted out repeatedly, as indeed it already has.
As Kevin Drum pointed out a few months ago, the hip replacement argument is a sign of egregious cherry picking of data.
When comparing huge and complex systems like the health care or education systems in different nations, making point-to-point comparisons of isolated cases is of little use. No system is going to be better at every single thing, so this kind of debate results in each side selecting just those pieces of data to suit its purposes. There are probably some elective procedures for which there are longer waiting times in other countries than for those with high quality insurance plans in the US. It would not surprise me in the least if access to tests using expensive equipment like MRI machines is easier in the US (for those who have the requisite insurance coverage, of course) than it is for people in other countries. Health care in the US is aimed at servicing the well-to-do, because it is they who are the decision and policy-makers and as long as they are kept content, they are unlikely to want to make changes that reduce the profits of the health care industry, let alone eliminate them entirely, even if the changes benefit the general public.
One needs to look at aggregate measures to better compare quality and cost across nations. For example, the World Health Organization in 2000 put out The world health report 2000 – Health systems: improving performance in which it used the following measures for the comparison for health systems, using measures of both goodness and fairness:
- overall good health (e.g., low infant mortality rates and high disability-adjusted life expectancy);
- a fair distribution of good health (e.g., low infant mortality and long life expectancy evenly distributed across population groups);
- a high level of overall responsiveness;
- a fair distribution of responsiveness across population groups; and
- a fair distribution of financing health care (whether the burden of health risks is fairly distributed based on ability to pay, so that everyone is equally protected from the financial risks of illness)
Michael Moore’s Sicko (which you should really see) points out that on measures like life expectancy at birth and infant mortality rates (i.e., the number of infants who die before reaching the age of one year for each 1,000 births), the US lags behind its developed world counterparts, even though its spends far more on health care as a fraction of its GDP (13.6% in 1998) than its nearest competitor Germany (10.6%). Per capita spending is also highest is the US ($4,178) with the next highest being Switzerland ($2,794).
The reason the US gets so much less for the money it spends on health care is because of the vast amounts siphoned off to the insurance and drug companies, partly due to profits and partly due to a huge bureaucracy to handle the complex billing and processing process involved with private health insurance. Such costs account for between 19.3 and 24.1% of health care spending in the US compared with between 8.4 and 11.1% in (say) Canada.
There is a strong (negative) correlation between infant mortality and life expectancy, as can be seen from this graph, where each dot represents the data for a country, along with a linear regression line. The implication is clear that the best way to improve life expectancy is to reduce infant mortality. The reason that many developing countries have high infant mortality rates and resulting low life expectancy is that lack of access to clean water results in diarrhea and this leads to dehydration, which is often fatal for infants. (As an aside, the international conglomerate Nestle deserves widespread condemnation for its policy of marketing infant formula in the developing countries, despite the lack of easy access to clean water to prevent infection. Breastfeeding is always preferred except in exceptional cases, but because of the Nestle marketing campaign became perceived as inferior to formula.)
But when comparing the US to the rest of the developed world, access to clean water is not the main issue, so widespread access to health care emerges as the prime suspect for its low ranking. For example, infant mortality rates for non-whites in US cities are two to three times as high as the national average.
What really irks many people in the US about Moore’s film is perhaps not so much the adverse comparison with Canada, England and France. People who for some reason are enamored of the system here will complacently trot out once again hip replacement waiting times to claim a spurious superiority. It is the fact that among the 221 countries listed, Cuba’s infant mortality rate (6.04, rank 40) and life expectancy rates (77, rank 56) are almost identical with the US infant mortality (6.37, rank 42) and life expectancy (78, rank 45) that really rankles.
The US government’s implacable animosity to Cuba, trying to strangle its economy with boycotts and embargos and repeated attempts at destabilization and even assassination of its leaders, has to be one of the cruelest policies ever implemented towards a country that is not a threat to its security. And yet despite that deliberate attempt at destroying the Cuban economy, Cuba has managed to create a public health system that is a model for third world countries, and produces results in key indices that are comparable with the US. Cuba is legendary among third world countries in its generosity, sharing its medical personnel and expertise around the world.
Kevin Drum wonders if Moore’s use of Cuba in his film was a clever public relations strategy, knowing that it would trigger the almost reflexive anti-Cuba venom that exists in certain quarters in the US and that they would make a huge fuss, thus giving him free publicity. “Moore’s brilliance at getting his mortal enemies to do all his publicity for him is unparalleled.”
Drum may be right. In the weird media world we live in, it is not enough for Moore to accurately portray the scandal that is the US health system compared to its peer countries. That information has been out there for a long time, and ignored by the power elites. He had to create a fuss and by going to Cuba, he did so.
POST SCRIPT: This Modern World
Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow sums up the predictable responses to Sicko by the apologists for the US health care industry.