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Resisting the Forces for War over Health

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Amy Fried, Ph.D.     Permalink

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Conservative senators have used the occasion of President Obama's announcement on Afghanistan strategy, to sound a familiarcheerfor military over domestic spending. As such, the switch in news headlines provides yet another excuse to kill health care reform - or according to Lindsay Graham - to "trim up" healthcare.

There are a lot of forces that converge to make such a stance almost irresistible. First, wars are always easy to cheer for. They offer up a clear cut enemy, which focuses the public's imagination, and acts as an automaticuniter.

Second, there's Eisenhower's Military Industrial Complex - which exerts financial and institutional pressure on decision makers in favor of military spending.
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Another factor is what researchers in the field of social cognition have called the "base rate fallacy. "It describes people's tendency to fail to apply statistics on the probability of a particular type of event happening, over anecdotal information. For example, most people overestimate the chances of being in a plane crash, and underestimate the chances of a car crash. One explanation offered for this, is that we hear more about plane crashes in national news stories, than about car crashes. A news story is certainly more vivid than dry statistics. The same holds true for stories of terrorism vs. stories of people dying from lack of health insurance.

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Recently, David Sirota tried to fight against that tendency by comparing,on CNN, the security threat that Afghanistan poses, to the Harvard Universityfindingthat almost 45,000 people that die every year due to lack of health care insurance. (Amusingly, David Frumdismissesthe study out of hand, armed with nothing but his own attendance at Harvard.) Nevertheless, acts of terrorism create a much more vivid image than that of 45,000 individuals dying quietly every year.

But there's still another factor, brilliantly pointed out by feminist economistMarilyn Waring, which never seems to make it into current policy debates. She pointed out that the economic models we rely upon to measure the economies of states, are biased in favor of war spending.

As she writes inCounting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth:

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"[John Maynard] Keynes ... [and] Richard Stone ... co-authored [in 1939] a paper entitled 'The National Income and Expenditure of the United Kingdom, and How to Pay for the War.'"

She goes on to explain how the idea of merging the goals of paying for the war, and measuring economies, took hold in the United States, as well:

"Milton Gilbert ... became chief of the National Income Division of the Department of Commerce in the U.S. government in 1941....

Gilbert presented a paper in December 1941 entitled 'Measuring National Income as Affected by the War.' Statistical historians Duncan and Shelton claim that this paper is the first clear published statement of Gross National Product (GNP.)"

Thus, when our leaders weigh using fund for military spending vs. domestic issues such as health care, the very tools they use to assess the impact on our economy, are themselves tainted with a preference for war.

Waring's overall message is consistent with the famous Robert F. Kennedyquotewhich points out that various negative outcomes raise GNP, while other things that we value and cherish, don't show up at all.

I suppose Michael Moore'sSickomade a contribution to countering these biases. We need more.


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Amy Fried applies her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior to writing and activism on church-state separation, feminism, reproductive rights, corruption, media and veganism.

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