The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Robert Reich has been widely quoted in the news and blogs lately, citing a 2007 speech he delivered at UC Berkeley in which he is supposed to have said of health care reform that:

  • Younger people should pay more
  • Healthier people should pay more
  • Older people should just die- they're "too expensive"
  • There should be "less innovation" in medical technology
  • You should not expect to live longer than your parents.

That is largely going to be interpreted as the "hidden truth" that the MSM doesn't want you to know and to a certain extent it is, but not in the way the casual reader may understand it. Robert Reich was once my teacher and I knew there had to be more to it than that, and so I went to the source: UC Berkeley maintains an archive of webcasts and Reich's speech is available there verbatim.  The relevant portion of his remarks are between the 6:30 and 20:00 minute times. Indeed, upon listening to the speech there was more to it than that. Although Reich is liberal he is also incorrigibly intelligent and his remarks were framed as a speech by a hypothetical candidate, who for perverse reasons, could only tell the truth.  His main point was that the truth was untellable. And although his politics are left of center, his hypothetical unspeakable speech slaughtered every sacred cow the Berkeley audience held dear. So not only did Reich say the words above, but he said many other things besides, which I've marked in blue in my new laundry list below.  His other remarks I've amplified according my understanding of his points.

  • A solution in Iraq is going to be tough.
  • Treating more sick people will mean younger people will pay more.
  • It's too expensive to treat older people at the end of their life "so we're going to let you die".
  • If we use government to control costs there will be "less innovation" in medical technology and you should not expect to live much longer than your parents.
  • Global warming can only be tackled by a carbon tax which is going to cost you a lot of money.
  • We're going to have to pay teachers more for quality education -- costing you more -- but we have to be willing to fire the turkeys despite the unions.

  • Anyone who does an unskilled, repetitive job will lose it in the near future to outsourcing or automation. And there's nothing anyone can do about it.

  • A minimum wage doesn't help as much as an earned income tax credit.
  • Helping people at the bottom earn more is going to cost higher income people more money.
  • Medicare will bankrupt the nation unless something is done and will impoverish the youth.

  • The best way to ameliorate global poverty is to do away with farm subsidies.

The student audience, which at first clapped enthusiastically as Reich started to tell his unspeakable "truths"  stopped clapping by the end. Reich had uttered the fundamental heresy. You really can't have something for nothing. Pulling in one direction meant giving way in another. He went on to say that America was hopelessly addicted to fantasy; that anyone who got up on stage and reeled off the points he had made was politically dead.

Although I may disagree with many of the public policy positions that Robert Reich takes, his point that the truth makes piss-poor politics seems valid. Things come down to choices: lower costs versus death panels; torture versus intelligence; equity versus growth. And politicians, ever eager to garner votes, never want to say this. They will always try to have it both ways. Even when politicians choose one road over the other, they take pains to suggest they are simultaneously proceeding down two paths.  One can disagree with the choices Reich makes but he is right to say that choices are unavoidable.

Choices are unavoidable, but the alternatives are not fixed over the long term.  Constraints are real, but the constraints change.  The reason politicians survive is that human creativity often rides to their rescue. New knowledge, new resources and new worlds have turned many a hack into statesmen. But they are the beneficiaries, rather than the creators of productivity; what is irrational is to expect genuine creativity in a world dominated by politicians. The missing pairs of choices in Reich's list are these: creativity versus certainty, risk versus return, bureaucracy versus innovation. We can live only if we take the risk. That is the most unsayable truth of all.

Without accepting that risk we would live in the very small universe of the Archbishop of Cantberbury, who recently proclaimed that the only way to save the planet was to stop economic growth. For Canterbury, there were only so many loaves and so many fishes. The Daily Mail reported:

The Archbishop of Canterbury called for an end to economic growth to save the planet. Dr Rowan Williams said that economic growth based on consumer power had led to towards 'the death of what is most distinctively human'.

But he acknowledged that poverty should not be romanticised and said that economic growth could be one cause of 'human liberation'. 'We cannot grow indefinitely in economic terms without moving towards the death of what is most distinctively human, the death of the habits that make sense in a shared world where life has to be sustained by co-operation not only between humans but between humans and their material world,' he said.

There's no reason to believe in a valley over the next hill, or a new world across a sea of stars. But if "they" are going to let us die anyway, then what have we got to lose by trying to get there? Here's my fearless forecast: we're going to live longer than our parents and the world will keep spinning on its axis.

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