What Fresh Hell Is This?

August 21, 2009

A Fallacious Argument

I want everyone to take a look at Jerry Bowyer's latest article in the National Review Online.

Before I get into analyzing it, I have to admit that Jerry's article disappointed. I used to listen to him on the radio all the time. While I agreed with about 1% of what he said, I was also greatly admiring his intellect and his obvious depth of reading. He's a very smart guy and you DON'T want to tangle with him unless you've done your homework very very well. If you don't prepare, you'll loose and be out the door before you even knew what happened.

Jerry is the guy who turned me onto Peter Kreeft's book Socratic Logic. Great book. Kreeft takes the reader on a tour of Aristotelian (i.e. "classical") logic and - for the purposes of this posting, let me point this out - the range of logical fallacies possible.

Unfortunately Jerry constructs an easily discernible logical fallacy (sorry, Jerr. but you're smarter than this).

He begins by pointing out the good news regarding US life expectancy:
It turns out that Americans are living longer than they did at any time in the nation’s history. The average lifespan is just shy of 78 years, with women living slightly longer than 80 years. Males and females, blacks and whites — we’re all living longer than ever before.
All good news, of course. But then Jerry commits the fallacy:
So what’s all this noise coming out of D.C. and the left-wing media about how terrible our health-care system is? Why are we told of its unsustainability, its inherent greed and corruption, and its tolerance for tonsillectomy mills? Watching all this hand-wringing, one might think that Americans had the highest death rates ever recorded, rather than the lowest.
The fallacy here is that it's entirely possible for our health care system to be less-than-acceptable while still producing the highest lifespan in our history (more on that later). Those two things aren't mutually exclusive.

Jerry's fallacy is that he writes as if they were.

Here's an example that may clear things up: my chess game is pretty mediocre. If I studied any of the chess books on my bookshelf my chess game would undoubtedly get better. Let's assume for the sake of the argument that I studied hard and made my game better than it ever was.

That does not mean I'd have a good chess game, however. It might be, it might not be, there's no way to know. All I'd know is that it would just be better than it was. See how that works?

That's what Jerry did. He used the comparative "better" without putting it into an understandable framework and then skewed what he was comparing. Just because it's better than it was doesn't mean it's good.

Jerry ends with this:
The cable-television pundits remind us that we’re spending about 16 percent of our national output on health care, and conclude that this is some kind of national scandal. Why? What percentage should we be spending? Is 10 percent more acceptable? Is 5 percent?

Let’s be clear: Prosperous countries spend more on doctors and medicine than non-prosperous ones. The poor allocate almost everything they earn to food, rent, and clothes, and have little to spend on medicine and even less to squander on fun. When a nation gets wealthy, however, food, roofs, and pants become less of a cost issue, while more money is funneled to matters such as health.

Our great-grandparents spent much less than 16 percent of GDP on health care, and they barely made it into their 60s. Would any of you willingly give back 20 years in exchange for less health-care spending?
The fallacy here is that he's comparing the US with only less prosperous countries. Omitting other prosperous ones (did you notice that?) as if to say that those are the only options.

So how does the US fare compared to other industrialized nations in terms of life expectancy and health care costs as percentage of GDP?

NOT as well as Jerry would like you think. According to the CIA Factbook the US ranks 50th among countries across the world (35th among UN member states) in terms of life expectancy. Behind Japan, Canada, Switzerland and so on.

And how does the US compare in Health Care spending as a percentage of GDP? According to this article in the NYTimes (which gets its data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) we're way way way ahead of the pack.

For the year 2007 (the last for which data is available) the percentage is about 16% - much higher than any of the other prosperous countries listed.

So we're paying more for it than anyone else on the planet and yet our life expectancy (though higher than it's ever been) is not the highest on the planet. Not even close.

See the fallacies in Jerry's argument now?


Heir to the Throne said...

The US ranks 50th among countries across the world (35th among UN member states) in terms of life expectancy.
Note this chart breaking down US life expectancy by race.
The Countries with life expectancies above the US have smaller minority populations.
Must be racism.

Gloria said...

Wow, Jerry B., a blast from the past, haven't thought about him in years. When I did listen to him on the radio, even though I rarely agreed with his position on any matter, his knowledge on the issue he discussed was rather breath taking. What also struck me was the civility he maintained in debate/discussion, whether with guests or callers.
Dare I say I miss him?

cberry88 said...

That NYTimes graph was pretty telling huh? Funny that it rose so dramatically during 80-92, steadied from 92-00 then rose again until till now.

Clyde Wynant said...

Scary when someone with such an apparent grasp of the facts still must insist upon pretzel logic to make his point....

Great job breaking this down!

EdHeath said...

HTTT, yes.

Ask any African American you know if racism has ended in this country.

And ask them if they get the same quality of healthcare as white Americans.