The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Handling the Truth

The last courtroom scene of the movie, A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, is a classic for many reasons. Cruise, a Navy JAG lawyer is questioning Nicholson, a Marine Colonel about the murder of another marine.
Nicholson [in a fury]: “You want answers?”
Cruise [yelling]: “I think I’m entitled … I want the truth!”
Nicholson: “You can’t handle the truth!”

The same can be said for a significant percentage of the American public. Too many of us say we want answers, but in reality, “We can’t handle the truth!”

Over the past few days, the conservative blogoshere has made much of a 2007 talk by Obama economic advisor Robert Reich in which he talks about healthcare (as well as a number of other subjects). Discussing Reich's speech, Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club suggests that his 2007 comments have a deeper and more important message for both progressives and conservatives.

At the core of his 2007 speech, Reich suggested, correctly I think, that fundamental political truths cannot be spoken by any candidate who wants to win. Among his examples are “truths” about health care that, to channel Nicholson, much of the public (both Right and Left) simply can’t handle.

A significant portion of the American public prefers a fantasy in which there are no risks and only simple or obvious choices. The reality is that there is always risk and that choices are rarely obvious or simple. Reich suggests no one really wants to hear this and that politicians (either on the Left or the Right) will not enunciate them. Fernandez summarizes Reich’s “truths” about health care.
  • 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.
  • Medicare will bankrupt the nation unless something is done and will impoverish the youth.

You don’t have to agree with a single item in this list to recognize the underlying truth in Reich’s overarching argument. Too often, a significant portion of the electorate would prefer fantasy to reality. And politicians, including our current President, are only too willing to feed that preference.

That’s why, for example, Barack Obama tells us that he can fund a trillion dollar health care program by cutting waste and abuse. It’s pure fantasy, but it sounds a lot better than the hard truth—all of us will have to pay a lot more in taxes, and the young will be hit hardest.

It’s likely that President Obama’s health care legislation will pass in some form. Then and only then will the fantasy of health care collide with reality of paying for it. Interestingly, there will be many who never reject the fantasy, continually looking for bogeymen (big pharma, the insurance companies, greedy hospitals) who they can blame as the country falls further into debt.

The core truth is that there is always risk and that we have to make hard choices, but more important, that the choices we make are valid only if the reality of the situation are delineated. Too often, it is not. Fernandez writes about those choices:
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.

For far too many of us on both the Left and the Right, Jack Nicholson’s character was right: “You can’t handle the truth!”