2013-10-07

Free Lunches, Politics, And Meta-Belief

Like many American adults, I have been having a number of discussions - around the dinner table, the water cooler, on social medai, etc. - about the size and scope of government in light of the government "closure" and spotty implementation of Obamacare.

I could discuss these issues yet again here on my blog, or I could try to shed some light on what I perceive to be the key problems with this whole ball of yarn. Since none of my previous discussions have gone anywhere or solved anything, maybe I'll take the latter approach. The big question here is why there is so much disagreement about things that depend quite heavily on the underlying facts? 

In other words, it's not sufficient for one side to say that Obamacare will "bend the cost curve downward" while the other side insists that Obamacare will lead to financial ruin. It's not sufficient for one side to say that there is no problem with raising the debt ceiling while the other side says that raising the debt ceiling will be ruinous. The reason it's not sufficient is because this is a fact-stasis disagreement. One side is definitely right and the other side is definitely wrong.

Nor can it be said that no one is really sure how it will all turn out. In the year 2013, we have enough experience with the economics of government debt, deficit spending, socialized medicine, and so forth, to see exactly where it leads. Frankly, there shouldn't be a lot of "debate" about these things. 

And yet there is. Why?

One answer is that people persist in beliefs even when the facts tell them they should change their minds. One handy method of doing this is to just keep scouring the web until you discover an article that upholds your existing point of view. Basically, what this means is that we often "outsource" our critical thinking to other people so that we don't have to spend so much time researching and analyzing the information ourselves.

But in order for this "outsourcing" to work, a person has to have already decided where they want to end up. A person has to decide in advance that Obamacare is a worthwhile initiative; then, in response to any criticism, that person can go forth and cite any article that upholds their own argument. And yes, it can go the other way, too; a person can decide in advance that Obamacare is evil and shut out all arguments to the contrary.

Now pause for a moment to reconsider the fact that these are fact-stasis disagreements. In other words, the facts are what they are: either Obamacare is an expensive, obtrusive regulatory nightmare, or it is the savior of our health care system. Either continued deficit spending and debt limit increases will have adverse consequences on the American economy, or it will ultimately be good for the economy. We know enough about these things as to render the disputes completely irrelevant. The facts are what they are.

Now, most people agree that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Most people will tell you that you can't just magically conjure up a bunch of economic stimulus out of thin air and that you can't suddenly start providing for a large number of previously uninsured Americans without ultimately trading something to get there. My intuition, logic, and experience tells me that these things are going to have big repercussions, and that they won't be purely positive. Most sane and rational people would agree that significant costs like these can't simply be covered by wishful thinking.

But there's nothing to debate about it. Either it will happen or it won't. Maybe I'm the crazy one. We'll see.