Recently, one column directly below the other in the Op Ed section of my newspaper, both about fixing Medicare, attempted to persuade us of each writer’s position on the issue…one from Right leaning David Brooks, the other from Ezra Klein who appears to be tilting more left-ish. They did this by appealing to our Spock-selves, using the logic of statistics.
Mr. Brooks cited the following in his attempt to convince us that a system with greater government control by a team of experts is akin to a walk in Wonderland: “(existing competitive model)…costs are 41% below expectations”; Mr. Klein tried to convince us that countries with greater government control have far better, and more cost-effective systems than do we, by citing the following statistic: “The Medicare Advantage (competitive model) program…ended up costing about 120% of what Medicare costs.”
Hmmmm… the competitive model costs us less, except when it’s costing us more.
This is the problem with statistics. The numbers may be real, the science behind them solid, but you can easily find what you want to support your position, using numbers to tell a very different story about the same specific issue.
It is understandable, then, that folks with some willingness (and ability) to think critically, will rely only marginally on easily manipulated (or carefully chosen) numbers to make important decisions.
Instead, here is my recommended recipe for deciding the best course of action: start with your fact-based numbers – fine (I am a particular fan of cost/benefit analyses) – but then add a big dollop of common sense, a generous sprinkle of compassion, add plenty of historic track record, throw in a dash of learning from others (mistakes and successes), and season with what is best for the common good (my fellow Boomers, “keep your hands off my Medicare” is a fine example of thinking “me” vs. common good).
Crucial decisions on how to fix seriously dysfunctional systems without doing more harm in the process, like reducing our national debt while maintaining a decent quality of life for all Americans, depend on this balanced approach.