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August 2009

Skip This If You Don’t Care What I Think About the Health Care Debate

Of course I don’t really want to spend a lot of time talking about the American health care debate, but I can’t resist putting in my two cents’ worth. I’ll try to keep it brief.

First, let’s stipulate that our present system is a mess from almost any point of view, and is in serious need of far-reaching reform. But let’s also stipulate that merely calling something a reform does not mean it will be an improvement. I hear people say “anything would be better than what we have,” which is an extremely foolish thing to say, and I hope my judgment on it will not have to be proven by experiment.

One of the wisest things anyone has said on this subject appeared some years ago as a letter to the editor in National Review. I can’t remember exactly when it was, so I couldn’t easily find it even if I had access to the back issues, but I think it was at least four or five and less than ten years ago. It was from a Dane, perhaps a physician himself though I can’t remember for sure.

It’s a frequent tactic in the U.S. debate to refer to Scandinavia for examples of government-run health care systems that work very well. And this man agreed that the Danish system does in fact work well, and that he is very happy with it.

But he went on to say that such a system would never work in the U.S. Denmark, he said, is a small, homogeneous, unified country where most people have a very strong sense of responsibility and discipline, while the United States is a large and undisciplined country and includes far too many people who would see the system only as something to be exploited. And I don’t mean only the sort of shiftless people who always exploit welfare, social security, etc. as recipients—I mean doctors, lawyers, corporations, and bureaucrats who would approach the system as vultures would approach a big dead pig, and probably be much greater abusers, in terms of sheer dollars, than the mere dishonest recipients. The safeguards required to protect us from fraud would make an already complex system even more so.

Another comment that’s remained with me for years now is one I heard in the early ‘90s, when Hillary Clinton’s plan was being debated. In a Catholic forum on one of the pre-web online services, there was a woman, a lawyer, who was vigorously promoting the plan. Much of her law practice was devoted to health-care consulting. There is something wrong with a system so complicated and regulation-ridden that such consulting is required, and something even more wrong about making it more so. Yet that was what she expected, and she quite liked the idea. Someone asked her, finally, how the new plan would affect her business, and she admitted that she would do quite well out of it. She saw nothing at all wrong with her intention to be, in essence, a parasite on the system, providing no health care to anyone, only helping them navigate a labyrinth which she helped to construct and could spend all her time studying.

And she was relatively scrupulous. We live in a country where the Secretary of the Treasury, Tax Collector in Chief for the nation, was caught evading taxes.

We live in a country in which the whole concept of “citizen” is disappearing. We have many, many people who feel no personal stake in or responsibility for the nation as a whole. We have three major ethnic groups (African, Mexican, and European) who dislike and mistrust each other. We have two large socio-political factions (broadly if inaccurately labeled “liberal” and “conservative”) who hate each other with an intensity approaching violence. We have a very powerful and very rich central government which is the object of constant manipulation by thousands of people paid very well to direct that power and wealth toward specific organizations, commercial and otherwise.

To attempt to impose a single national system on the whole country is folly. And I don’t mean just the euphemistically-named “single payer” system, but any system which is managed by the government. Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

Yes, there is a lot of misinformation and hysteria among the opponents of the plan. Yet they differ from the president himself more in their tone than in their degree of error. Mr. Obama’s declaration that what he proposes will provide better care for less money is simply a fantasy (assuming he really believes it) which few take seriously. For twenty years and more we’ve been told that Social Security and Medicare are heading for the financial rocks. Mr. Obama’s assertion that we can painlessly add universal health care to that burden has been shot down by no less an authority than the Congressional Budget Office.

What should we do instead? Well, I have no detailed plan, but I can see a more productive direction. The craziest thing about our system is the assumption that one’s employer pays for one’s health insurance. That connection desperately needs to be broken. I’ve read that it’s a consequence of wage controls implemented after World War II—employers who wished to pay their people higher wages started paying for their health insurance instead. The result is a testimony to the power of unintended consequences, and one of those things that only seems reasonable because we’re so used to it. No one expects his employer to buy his house, or his food, or his car, or to pay for the education of his children. We should be aiming for a situation where most people, people of normal means, purchase their own health insurance, just as they purchase their own house, auto, and life insurance, and those who can’t afford it are assisted.

We are indeed an undisciplined people, but we are also an enterprising one, and we are very good at finding clever solutions to practical problems. We need an approach that, while making sure that everyone has access to some reasonable and decent level of medical care, works with rather than against the temperament and gifts of the American people, does not dig our national financial hole far deeper, and does not exacerbate our internal tensions.

To that end, if you’re interested enough to read further, please take a look at this post by John Schwenkler at Upturned Earth, which provides some more specific diagnoses and solutions. I have not read the long piece to which he links and which is the basis of his post, but I plan to. I can only think about this stuff for so long at one time.

A Theological Question

Does it make sense, or do any good, to offer up for other people pain which is a direct result of your own sins or mistakes? I figure it can’t hurt, but I wonder what an informed theological view of the question would be.

Crooked Still

Clare recently introduced me to this terrific folk group, and their album Shaken By A Low Sound is my current favorite music. They can be described very broadly as bluegrass, but with a twist, and their repertoire includes very un-bluegrass folk material such as Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” The singer sounds somewhat like Allison Krauss—she has a relatively soft, unstrained, breathy voice, not traditionally country at all, but very beautiful and expressive. The instrumentation includes a cello—and on this album at least, no guitar. They don’t really venture all that far from traditional folk styles, but yet their approach is strikingly distinctive. Here is a live performance of a song from Shaken By A Low Sound, “Ain’t No Grave”:

Aside from her marvelous singing, I love the singer’s unpretentious and down-to-earth stage manner. There are a number of live clips on YouTube, and it appears that dressing oddly was a constant with the cellist. Clare tells me he has now left the band, which must have been a great loss, but they are continuing. You can hear samples from the album here. They have one or two others that I haven’t heard. I find it hard to imagine anyone who likes American folk music not being really taken with this.

Another Note on Ted Kennedy

I’ve run across several tributes from people on the political right who knew Kennedy personally and have very good things to say about him as a man and a friend. Here are a few:

Cal Thomas

David Frum

And Kathryn Lopez of National Review Online describes seeing him often at daily Mass.

And then there was the news story back in July revealing that when President Obama visited the pope he hand-delivered a lengthy letter to from the senator to Benedict. Perhaps Kennedy was genuinely penitent about his rather well-known personal failings. And I’ve always believed that the way we treat the people close to us and the people we meet every day is a far better indicator of character and virtue than any of our big ideas, especially political ones. R.I.P.

Ted Kennedy, R.I.P.

What do you say upon the death of someone whom you neither admired nor respected? In general simple silence is in order. And in general I don’t feel the impulse to comment on the death of a prominent person merely because he or she was prominent, only if his or her position and career seem of special significance.

That is the case with Senator Kennedy. His death is an important public event. He was not only very prominent, but very influential, and in my opinion that influence was more harmful than not. And he has been an especially irritating presence to me, as to many Catholics, because he was so very publicly Catholic. Some of those who fought him politically liked and respected him personally, and that speaks well of him, but I can only view him as a public man. I won’t speak any further ill of him, but neither will I pretend to mourn.

In time all our controversies will belong to another world, a world we will have left behind, and who can say what their  relationship, and ours, will then be to this one? And even within this world they will become historical, no longer of practical moment, long since resolved for better or worse, spoken of as Eliot spoke of the English civil war in Four Quartets:

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.

Senator Kennedy is of that party now, though our war is not over, and what God’s view of his role may be is not for me to conjecture. I hope he will receive the same mercy that I hope to receive: Lord, have mercy on him and on us all.

A Lucky Day

We’ve arrived again at my favorite part of the lunar cycle: the waxing crescent, approaching the half. This means that for the next several days when I take the dogs for their last walk around 10 or 11pm, I’ll see the moon in the western sky, over the water. Then for some days after that I’ll have the light of the full or nearly full moon, though it won’t be over the water at the time I’m usually out.

Yesterday, despite having been a somewhat difficult one at work, seems to have been a lucky day for me after all. I arrived at the water’s edge just in time to see the moon about 15 degrees or so above the horizon, and glowing a very strange and bright pink-orange. There was a low bank of clouds on the horizon. As I watched, the moon sank into these clouds, vanishing from the bottom up. The crescent was almost vertical, so that when it was about half-gone it looked like a candle flame. The whole show lasted no more than a minute. Like I said, a lucky day.

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge

Superficially this novel seems a domestic drama of the sort that I would not ordinarily find very interesting. To summarize the bare facts of the narrative would make it sound as if nothing much happens: a family buys a house, and various troubled relationships in and around the family and its new home arrive at some degree of resolution. Normally that sort of novel is not my cup of tea—not at all. But a narrative summary does not begin to do justice to the richness of the novel’s vision.

I could begin to describe the difference between this and the typical naturalistic novel of manners by saying that this is a thoroughly Christian work, but even that does not do it justice. In fact such a description is an injustice, because it suggests that “Christianity” is present in the novel in the form of an idea, as a more or less abstract answer to various moral and philosophical questions posed by the narrative.

It would be better to say that everything in it is suffused with and transfigured by the presence of God, and that the plot is a working-out of God’s providence. Not all the characters are conscious of this, but all are caught up in it.

Two comparisons occur to me, and both seem superficially unlikely, but both illuminate the way Pilgrim’s Inn transcends the limits of what appears at first to be its genre. First, some of the films of Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries, for instance, or Autumn Sonata. The work of the atheist Bergman may seem an odd comparison to that of the Christian Goudge, but it presents itself to me because I’ve often thought that by my usual tastes I shouldn’t like certain of Bergman’s films, because they are exactly the sort of nothing-much-happens study of family relationships that usually makes me impatient, and maybe downright uncomfortable. But the work of both Bergman and Goudge is distinguished from these, and made fascinating, by the way they reach down into the depths. The human relationships are not only that; they have powerful spiritual and philosophical implications. A story like Wild Strawberries, for instance, deals not only with the problem of an old man’s relationships with his son, his daughter-in-law, and his dead wife, but with the question Is there mercy?

The other comparison is to Charles Williams. At first glance the two, Goudge and Williams, could hardly seem more different. Williams is often dark in both the literal and symbolic senses in a way that Goudge is not, and he is often obscure in every sense, while Goudge is lucid. It is, for instance, not always easy, and sometimes not even possible, to see what Williams is describing—I mean at the fundamental level of forming a mental picture of a scene or an action. Goudge, in contrast, presents a skillful and detailed visual rendering of everything. This in fact becomes for me almost a fault: due to some defect in the way my mind works, I find it very difficult to form a clear visual image from a verbal description, and often it seems that the more elaborate and detailed the description, the less clear my image. I still do not have a good visual grasp of the two houses and their surrounding landscape which form such an important part of this book. Nevertheless, the descriptions have their effect in producing a sense of a rich and beautiful environment, both in its natural and man-made aspects.

The similarity to Williams lies on a deeper level. Principally it’s the sense, first, that the natural and the supernatural are not really separated from each other and are in constant interaction. And second, that the universe, in both its physical and material aspects, is what Christian thought conceives it to be. This is another way of approaching what I said earlier about the presence of God in the work. The operations of the individual soul and of the world and of God’s providence are represented as Christian in as natural a way as physical events are Newtonian in any novel; in both cases laws, spiritual in the one case and physical in the other, govern implicitly, and need not be much remarked upon. It is hard to see how anyone could enjoy this book without at least grasping the idea of the Christian God. (I am sure it is possible, and is in fact done, just as people frequently miss the essence of Flannery O’Connor’s work; I just can’t quite understand how.)

This Christianity is of a very English sort. Goudge seems to have been some sort of Anglo-Catholic. Someone in Pilgrim’s Inn refers to “Henry VII of detested memory” or something of that sort. And one of the most admirable characters in it is a clergyman, affiliation unstated but presumably Church of England. It is the sort of Anglicanism that could hold C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, despite their Catholic leanings, and which I suppose is now approaching extinction. Also approaching extinction, if one can trust what one reads from people like Theodore Dalrymple and Peter Hitchens, is the sort of England, especially the rural England, that Goudge clearly knew and loved deeply. I suppose those who hated and have sought to destroy that England would say she sentimentalized it, and that it was always the nasty and oppressive place portrayed in, for instance, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. Well, I’m in no position to judge, but if England was once anything like Goudge’s picture, and if it really is gone or almost gone, it’s the world’s loss.

Returning to the Williams connection: in both authors, love is a real thing, a sort of force or substance comparable to a physical force or substance. It is not an emotion—it produces emotion, but is not identical with it. It is the essential element of the world of the spirit and has its own laws of action and reaction just as the physical world does. A love which is not returned is not, as we might think of it, a useless fit of passion something like what happens when one stubs a toe on a rock and breaks out in useless curses. When someone loves, something has happened, an event, which, like a rock thrown into a pool, will have an effect. And this is true no matter how the love is received, or even if it is kept completely secret and leads to no external action. Love is God’s word, and it does not return to him in vain.

Some would say that Pilgrim’s Inn is sentimental, that all the difficulties work out too neatly. And on the naturalistic level there is some justification for that complaint. But it misses the essence, which is the promise that this is, in the end, how the world works. Just as the strands of troubled lives are gathered together for the good, though temporarily and incompletely, in the novel, so they will be gathered for the good permanently and completely in God’s reality—will be, and are being.

Contrary to first impression, then, this is in fact less a naturalistic novel than a romance, not in the contemporary sense of being a love story—thought it includes several of those—but in the older sense of being a tale of adventure and marvels in which the hero passes through many difficulties but wins some sort of victory or at least comes to some sort of non-tragic resolution. The Odyssey is an early and excellent example. (One difference here is that there is no single hero, no real main character at all. Some characters are given more attention than others, but there is no central person or couple, but rather a central family.) Pilgrim’s Inn may indeed be the novel of manners it first appears to be, but it is not a realistic or naturalistic one. It might be called a novel of supernatural manners.

There is much, much more to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on any of its beautiful specifics, which means I haven’t really given you any very concrete sense of what it’s like. But that’s all I have time for today. I’m very much indebted to Janet Cupo for introducing me to this wonderful writer.

Cat Among Books

This picture struck me not for any aesthetic merit but for the reflection provoked by the juxtaposition of the cat and these particular books. It was not arranged; Meme just happened to be sleeping there.

On one side of the cat, a novel by my favorite mystery writer (and one of my favorite writers, period), Ross Macdonald: an image of the problem of death. On the other side, a recent issue of Magnificat: an image of the answer to the problem of death. And in the middle, serenely indifferent to both, the animal.

And outside the picture, but responsible for creating it, and conscious of everything in it, mind working unceasingly on the questions they raise, the man.

Underneath the Magnificat, by the way, is a novel that very much belongs on that side of the picture, Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn, of which I plan to say more soon.

Comprehensively Misinterpreting Jane

I was going through and mostly discarding old magazines a week or so ago and discovered that I had completely missed the September 2008 issue of Touchstone. It contains an excellent piece by Eleanor Bourg Donlon about Becoming Jane, the fictionalized biographic film about Jane Austen that we were discussing here a week or two ago (actually, looking back at that discussion, I see most of it was about the other movies mentioned in that post). As I suspected, devoted Austen fans, those who understand her best, are even more negative toward the movie than I was:

Becoming Jane could be taken as an innocent fiction, but why was such a film made in the first place? The answer is that it is the latest in a long line of comprehensive misinterpretations of Austen classics established upon the premise that unless Jane Austen experienced adolescent passion and rebelled against traditional authorities, she was not a “real” woman.

Read the whole thing here.