Showing them how it’s done

As we have said from the beginning, we analyze the logic of arguments here. We do not claim to decide, in most cases, the truth of the many complicated matters that come before the pundits. We try, however, to evaluate whether the reasons advanced by the pundits provide justification for their conclusions. We also attempt to catch as many of their cheap tricks as we can along the way.

Not all pundits are as scandalously fallacious as some of our favorite subjects. It might be good occasionally to examine a good opinion piece, to remind ourselves what our standards for reasoned discourse should look like.

One the pundits whom we watch carefully is Paul Krugman. Krugman’s opinion pieces stand out on the pages of the NYT for their clarity and rigor. His arguments are clearly developed and precisely articulated. He rarely claims to have shown more than his argument justifies and he never seems to stoop to the fallacious glibness that characterizes most, or at least many, of his fellow editorialists. One reason for this may be his willingness to develop his arguments over a long series of columns rather than trying to fit for example a critique of all other alternatives to his view in a single 700 word column. There is patience here that is a sign of good academic training.

Just this week he has inaugurated a new topic: the crisis in our health care system (Source: NYT 4/11/05).

>America does face a real crisis – but it’s in health care, not Social Security.

What evidence does he provide for this? It follows immediately.

>Well-informed business executives agree. A recent survey of chief financial officers at major corporations found that 65 percent regard immediate action on health care costs as “very important.” Only 31 percent said the same about Social Security reform.

Now, strictly speaking this is evidence for the claim that “Experts perceive a crisis in our health care system.” But with the added assumption–so plausible that it almost goes unnoticed in most media–that “business executives are experts in political matters that concern businesses” the premise supports the conclusion–“There is a crisis in our health care system.” We have here a nice inductive argument with a legimate appeal to authority, that (if the statistic is true) makes it more probable than not that we do in fact have a health care crisis.

If this was the only argument that Krugman was advancing for his view then we would have cause for concern. But the remainder of the column attempts to bolster this claim and at the end of the column he promises:

>Over the next few weeks I’ll back up these assertions, and talk about what a workable health care reform might look like, if we can get ideology out of the way.

Thus, in this opening salvo his goal is to undermine the prevailing ideology that refuses to recognize a problem because of blindness to the realities.

Nonetheless, Krugman’s first point is that this is a health care crisis not a medicare crisis.

>The costs of Medicare and of private health plans are both rising much faster than G.D.P. per capita, and at about the same rate per enrollee.
>So what we’re really facing is rapidly rising spending on health care generally, not just the part of health care currently paid for by taxpayers.

This isn’t the only mistaken belief that needs to be rebutted at the outset:

>Rising health care spending isn’t primarily the result of medical price inflation. It’s primarily a response to innovation: the range of things that medicine can do keeps increasing.

Krugman gives only one example–the recent expansion of coverage in medicare to include cardiac implant devices. This doesn’t provide much support for the claim, so we will have to leave it as a unjustified assertion.

If it’s the case that innovation is what is driving health care costs, then we might legimately wonder whether here is any reason to be worried. Krugman claims that there are three reasons to worry:

>First, America’s traditional private health insurance system, in which workers get coverage through their employers, is unraveling.

>Second, rising Medicare spending may be a sign of progress, but it still must be paid for

>Finally, the U.S. health care system is wildly inefficient.

In each case he gives us a reason to accept the truth of the claim and together these three reasons provide good justifcation for his claim that there is a health care crisis.

As I noted above, this is not the extent of Krugman’s analysis and already today (Source: NYT 04/15/05) he has turned back to these questions and argued for and tried to explain the third claim above through a comparison with other countries health care expenditures and the measures of their populations on various criteria for wellness and care.