MEDIA WATCH

Scare talk and skepticism

Journalists should have knocked down arguments that free trade with the United States menaced medicare

GEORGE BAIN March 2 1992
MEDIA WATCH

Scare talk and skepticism

Journalists should have knocked down arguments that free trade with the United States menaced medicare

GEORGE BAIN March 2 1992

Scare talk and skepticism

MEDIA WATCH

Journalists should have knocked down arguments that free trade with the United States menaced medicare

GEORGE BAIN

It is widely accepted among journalists that three essential characteristics of persons in their trade are a curiosity to find out, a visceral need to tell everybody once they know and a healthy skepticism. That last, or so the mythology goes, brings a cold eye to bear on all statements and issues so that journalists are able to separate the wheat from the chaff—although not necessarily to throw away the wheat, as Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Democratic candidate of 1952 and 1956, once alleged. The second of those characteristics is ingrained, because the journalist who can’t ever find anything worth telling soon ceases to be employed. Curiosity and skepticism are auxiliary.

That out of the way, let’s take a leap back in history to the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and its relationship, if any, to Canada’s health-care system. It is already apparent that, in the 1992 U.S. presidential election campaign, health care is an important issue. There was every reason to expect it would be. Even on the night of the 1988 U.S. election, when the ultimate result was clear but the counting incomplete, some senior Democrats, such as Senator Edward Kennedy, were talking about their party’s having to make health care a plank in the 1992 platform. They now have several ideas on the go, needing only to be refined and rolled into one.

President George Bush already has denounced the Canadian model as not suitable. He spoke of long waits for heart surgery in British Columbia, something he may have got from a U.S. television documentary that said the same. Bush has put up a complex scheme of his own. The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS in mid-February—as candidates of both parties slogged through New Hampshire in the first primary of them all—allotted time each night for a week to discussion of U.S. health care and what needs to be done about it. But the issue has not sprung up just with the campaign, or with politicians.

By January, 1989, The New England Journal

of Medicine had already said of medical care that new thinking was needed. On April 16, 1989, Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler Corp., said in a column in the Los Angeles Times: “Ten years ago, any red-blooded American business leader caught even whispering the notion of national health insurance would have been asked to turn in his pinstripe suit. And of course, the medical establishment saw any greater government role in health care as the possible end of Western civilization as we know it. Well, don’t look now, but there’s a big crack in the dike. More and more businesspeople are not just whispering, but talking out loud about making health-care financing a government responsibility.”

Four months after Iacocca wrote his bit in the Times, Pete Catucci, a vice-president of the Communications Workers of America, was also talking about health care, this time on MacNeil/Lehrer. “There is an answer to this problem,” he said. “Just north of us in Canada, they have a national health-care policy. In Canada, everybody is covered by health care. The workers don’t pay a cent.” What brought Catucci in front of the cameras was a strike of 190,000 workers in four telephone companies in the Atlantic, midwestern and Pacific states.

The major issue uniting them was companypaid health insurance, in which management wanted employee cost-sharing.

Iacocca and Catucci had in common a complaint about cost—eight per cent of gross national product in Canada for health care, Catucci said, compared with 12 per cent in the United States, and yet 37 million Americans had no medical insurance. “Our per capita health bill,” said Iacocca, who also cited the 37 million unprotected, “is 41 per cent higher than Canada’s, 61 per cent higher than Sweden’s, 85 per cent more than France’s, 131 per cent more than Japan’s and a whopping 171 per cent above Great Britain’s.”

Iacocca acknowledged uneasiness over government taking all responsibility for health care—“a huge risk, given our lousy record of federal financing of social services.” Nevertheless, $700 of the cost of producing a car in the United States went to pay for health care for employees, retirees and their families, three times as much as in Japan, and “the competitive pressures to try something different are building.”

What this has to do with media curiosity and skepticism is that an alleged risk to social programs became an emotional issue in the free trade debate, largely because of two contradictory, and now clearly false, arguments that were capable of being trashed at the time and weren’t. The emphasis in current U.S. politics on improving health care there, not undermining ours, demonstrates their falsity.

The two arguments were (a) that Big Interests in the United States would argue that Canadian health care subsidizes industry, therefore must be “harmonized”—cut to equal—in the name of a “level playing field,” and (b) that Big Interests in Canada would demand it be cut in the name of competitiveness, because doing so would permit taxes to be decreased. The first was fraudulent in that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, to which both countries subscribe, accepts that universal social programs are not trade-distorting subsidies, therefore not countervailable. The second would be fraudulent, if argued, because Canadian industry scarcely could be unaware that the health-care system is a bargain, to everyone, compared with the haphazard and incomplete system in the United States.

Evidence existed then, both in GATT documents and in findable dissatisfaction in the United States with the state of that country’s health-care system, to knock such arguments on the head. The Winnipeg Free Press, to its credit, said in a July 7, 1988, editorial that, if true, the risk of destruction of Canadian social programs “would be a potent argument against adopting the agreement.” It added that “It is a difficult argument to support, however, since the agreement makes no mention of social programs” and that references to “harmonization” referred to anti-dumping and countervailing duties as applied to bilateral trade, purely trade-related matters. But for the most part, the scare talk about the ruination of social programs to come was allowed to flourish untouched by curiosity or skepticism, because conflict sells.