The Financial Seminary
Please note, this article represents Class Eight of a series. Other Classes are available for viewing under the “Classes” tab.
“This newspaper supported the final version of Obamacare, but only because we have long maintained that a country as rich as America should provide decent health coverage to all its citizens. But this bill does almost nothing to control costs,..If the tea-party crowd examined the free-market paradise they think existed before Mr. Obama signed the bill, they would find that their government already spent more per citizen on health than most OECD countries do. ”
March 27, 2010
Against the odds, Obama has won badly needed health reform: Barack Obama and his allies in Congress have succeeded where previous Democratic administrations have failed. They have passed a healthcare reform that guarantees health insurance for almost all Americans and ensures that bankruptcy will no longer be a consequence of serious illness. It has taken the US much too long to do what other rich countries did decades ago. Better late than never.”
The Financial Times
March 23, 2010
I might be in Florida while Dick Towner is in Chicago but I can still hear him wondering if I’m crazy to enter this divisive political debate. Well I’m not, entering the health care debate that is. Crazy, maybe. I still can’t understand my family’s health insurance. Wall Street has never been able to teach me to sell any form of insurance. I suppose I’m an investment counselor as I believe in managing life’s risks rather than paying someone to make them go away. But I do have a degree in political science. So I will make a couple of general political and economic comments while thinking out loud about the spiritual dimensions of this debate. I find them far more important with Americans being “rich” but “miserable” to use The Economist’s words.
First, it is the job of the minority party to question the goals of the majority party. But the Times said: “Mr. Obama can fairly criticize the Republicans, who were never open to co-operation. Their unanimous opposition to the reform is wholly indefensible.” And it’s the job of the majority party to pursue policies favored by their constituencies. But again, the Times said the Democrats “mismanaged the process. To their credit, they have ended up with a centrist, moderate reform--similar to the plan introduced in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, a Republican governor. But they got there reluctantly, approving the measure after months of roiling argument and bitter opposition from their own progressive wing.”
The extreme opinions on both sides suggest this political battle is far from over. So it’s crucial to understand its moral roots, as I see them. As the light of faith has dimmed in America, the “moderation in all things” of St. Paul, the “honor and respect” for government of Romans Thirteen, and the selfless “love thy neighbor” of the Great Commandment has weakened. So as Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s speech writer, has observed: “It is embarrassing to live in the most comfortable time in the history of man and not be happy. It is a terrible thing when people lose God. Life is difficult and people are afraid, and to be without God is to lose man’s great source of consolation and coherence. I don’t think it is unconnected to the boomers’ predicament that as a country we were losing God just as they were being born.”
Our Founding Fathers protected us with healthy checks and balances of opposing ideas. Yet we seem to have forgotten that America has never been a direct democracy where the uninformed, like me, make health care policies. The Founding Fathers wanted a representative form of democracy, responsive to the populist sensibilities of a moral people but not treating opinion polls as gospel. As John Adams famously put it: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The Founders clearly understood why Moses did not conduct an opinion poll before he went up Mount Sinai but Pilate did before washing his hands of Christ.
At the bottom of the credit crisis, Washington over-rode public opinion by investing in some of our major companies. Even Warren Buffett has said our leaders did what needed to be done. While I detested the elitist manner in which Washington acted, I now have to agree that things are much improved, if not perfect. Washington only used one-third of what we thought probable and its investments have proven profitable on average. At the same time, most Americans have avoided stocks. So occasionally, Washington may have a reasonable perspective, even if we can’t see it.
There’s nothing more healing politically than to “be still” and try to see things from the perspectives of God and others. You’ve probably seen that map usually sold in the Big Apple labeled, “A New Yorker’s View of America.” It shows New York City being about twice the size of the rest of the country. It’s much the same with political perspectives. The politicized mind tends to see Washington as twice as big as the rest of the country. So very few Americans can see there’s a huge difference in the finances of the federal government and the finances of America. That’s like feeling you’re broke because your savings account is empty when your home and IRA have soared in value.
As I’ve tried to say for many years now, while our federal government has indeed gone deeper and deeper into debt as both parties want guns and/or butter but one party refuses to pay for either, our nation has grown richer and richer. To reiterate, the Office of Management and Budget in the White House estimates publicly held debt in 1960 was 10.3% of our nation’s net wealth but was 6.5% at the end of the 2008 fiscal year, even after adjusting for the effects of inflation. Yet every extremist opposed to health care seems to believe “America’s already bankrupt.” And that’s a spiritual matter as it’s deluded.
So does that mean Washington can afford to insure us all? Not at all. Like a young husband promising his wife too much upon retirement, Washington has already made too many promises it can’t keep based on current tax policies. And common sense tells me you can’t insure all those additional people needing health care without it costing even more, particularly as Congress never got around to reducing the costs of the health care we do have. As most health care is this country is bought by business, it will be hard on many companies, even if the largest are currently sitting on record amounts of cash, which Washington obviously wanted to tap. But does that mean our nation can’t afford health care for its citizens? Again, not at all, particularly considering we buy most health care from our fellow Americans.
But we should all understand there was a hard reality behind Moses’ instructions to the Hebrews that they could not store manna for the future. There is no more real wealth stored in Social Security than in our bank vaults. It’s just accounting for how much of my income needs to be transferred through Washington to my mother and how much of my son’s income will need to be transferred to Sherry and myself. As a nation, we simply can’t store enough food and medical care for the future. So the crucial considerations are how much wealth we want and our children will create. If we don’t lower our expectations and/or they produce even more wealth, none of us will ever be happy. That means we need economic structures that balance opportunity and security.
Yet that’s also what’s so very dangerous about the politicized nonsense that America is broke and has no future. Such talk destroys the hopes of our children, not to mention our confidence to invest in the future. And that’s precisely why in The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis had old Screwtape, or Satan, explain to his nephew Wormwood that while the enemy, or God, wants humans focused on how we’re living today, it is Wormwood’s job to bedevil humanity about what might happen to us in the future. And whether America’s future will resemble a tea party or communion is deeply moral at heart.
As a conservative I believe there are two things the government should do for us: 1) what we can’t do for ourselves, such as national defense, interstate highways and so on, and 2) those sufficiently moral things that we won’t do for ourselves, which even conservatives agree includes having the state restrict abortion, for example.
Theoretically, we could provide health care for ourselves. There’s a Christian doctor in my hometown who down-sized from my gated community so he and his equally devout wife could buy a motor home. They turned it into a medical clinic to drive from one place where the needy and homeless gather to another. If more of our nation’s doctors and nurses were willing to do likewise--and more guys like me were willing to sacrifice more to support their work--our needy wouldn’t need Washington. But I don’t see that in the cards, even if doctors and investment brokers would find more joy when personally helping the needy than when paying taxes. So it seems we need to ask if universal health care is a sufficiently moral issue for the government to do what we don’t want to do ourselves.
There are two ways I usually begin thinking about moral matters: 1) the Golden Rule, which usually solves my dilemma, and 2) asking “What Would Jesus Do?” Oddly, the first is of little help to me in political issues as the Golden Rule is so personal in nature. And as a conservative, I honestly don’t know if I’d want the government to provide health care for me if it didn’t and I was unable to for some reason. As we discovered with my father-in-law, it is one thing to write “do not resuscitate” into your estate plans when you are middle-aged and healthy and quite another when you’re old and have just had a massive coronary.
Just as oddly as I can’t usually imagine imitating Jesus in the really tough areas of life, the WWJD approach may be more helpful this time. Jesus clearly went about healing people. No, he didn’t heal everyone; just those he could. If each of us did the same, health care would be plentiful. But realistically, that’s unlikely in post-Christian America. So if I was a politician, God forbid, this old Republican might have joined the moderate Democrats, rather than the uncooperative Republicans or the dogmatic Democrats.
As in politics, American religion seems to have grown increasingly tribal. We are increasingly associating with those who think as we do while listening to increasingly narrow media that affirm we know better than the other guys. For example, an evangelical stewardship leader once told me that there was nothing he could learn from a Catholic. But the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a group of primarily Catholic institutional investors, filed literally hundreds of shareholder resolutions over the past decade asking America’s investment firms to clean up sub-prime lending, the issue that nearly brought the world economy to its knees.
Gary Moore has thirty years of Wall Street experience and has served as an advisor to Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett’s Empower America. He has authored many publications on moral finance. He is affiliated with NPC Of America, member FINRA/SIPC, but these ideas are his alone. See http://www.financialseminary.org