July 1, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
July 1, 2012
Most academic historians labor in obscurity. But in Poland last year, a Princeton professor’s slim volume of Holocaust history became a controversial best seller. The publisher, Znak, saw its e-mail addresses bombarded, its business threatened with a boycott, and the area by its office graffitied. At a news conference, the publisher’s own executive director proclaimed herself opposed to the book’s publication and apologized to offended readers.
Such is the radioactive celebrity of Jan T. Gross, whom one Polish critic has called “a vampire of historiography.” Mr. Gross’s latest book, just released in English by Oxford University Press, investigates a sensitive topic: how Poles colluded in the pillaging and murder of Jews “at the periphery of the Holocaust.”
Its title, Golden Harvest, stems from a cover photograph that purportedly shows Polish peasants who have been digging through remains of victims killed at Treblinka, where 800,000 Jews were gassed and cremated, to find gold or valuable stones neglected by the Nazis.
From there, Mr. Gross narrates events beyond the barbed wire of Nazi death camps. He describes Poles hunting Jews down, extorting money from them, massacring them, and profiting by taking over their jobs and property. Some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before the war began, and about 90 percent had perished by its end.
“There was a sense of satisfaction that was quite widespread that they are being eliminated from Polish economic and social life,” Mr. Gross says in a phone interview from Kraków, where he is teaching a summer course for Princeton students. “When given the opportunity, a large number of Poles participated in victimization of Jews.”
Golden Harvest, written with Irena Grudzinska Gross, the author’s ex-wife, picks up a familiar theme. Mr. Gross’s 2001 book, Neighbors (Princeton University Press), forced Poles to reckon with their history by reconstructing a 1941 massacre in the tiny town of Jedwabne. Nearly all of its Jews were killed on one day—some 1,600 people knifed, clubbed, and burned alive in a barn. Mr. Gross documented that it was Poles who carried out this crime against their neighbors, not the Nazis who had been held responsible in official Polish history.
The controversy turned “Jedwabne” into a household word in Poland. Lech Walesa, anti-Soviet icon and later president of Poland, dismissed Mr. Gross as “a mediocre writer … a Jew who tries to make money.”
Notoriety at Home
Mr. Gross was born in Poland, in 1947, to a Christian mother and Jewish father. As a university student in 1968, he protested against the Communists and ended up in jail. He managed to leave Poland, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from Yale University and later migrating to departments of political science and history.
The white-haired, New York-based writer, 64, enjoys a level of notoriety in his native country that lacks any analogue among American historians. When word gets out that he is publishing a new book, anxiety spreads about what dirty laundry he will expose this time. His writing gets discussed on prime-time TV.
Mr. Gross “polarizes public opinion probably more than anyone else outside of the political world,” says Jan Grabowski, a Holocaust historian who splits his time between the University of Ottawa and Poland.
His books have struck such a nerve because they cut against the national narrative that Poland is exclusively a victim of history, not a victimizer.
President Obama recently experienced the tenderness of this topic firsthand when his reference to “a Polish death camp” touched off a diplomatic fracas, with irate Poles protesting that Nazis set up the camps on their land.
The Polish people experienced World War II as a debacle that brought the horrors of both Nazi and Soviet occupation. In 1940, Soviet secret police executed at least 25,000 Poles and buried them in mass graves in the woods near Katyn and elsewhere. Meanwhile, at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians died at German hands during World War II. Occupying Nazis terrorized the intellectual and ruling sphere of Polish society, killing those elites and sending them to concentration camps. When underground fighters revolted in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, German forces laid waste to the Polish capital.
“And suddenly, here comes Gross, who says … we did not walk on water,” Mr. Grabowski explains. “And there were three million of our co-citizens who have been murdered in our midst—and let’s look at what were our Polish reactions. What was the participation, or the role, played by our fathers, mothers, and grandfathers? This is something that strikes at the very core of nationalistic belief in innocence. … He was the one who brought this stinking mess into the open, single-handedly…
The Healthcare Myths We Must Confront: Rejecting four major misconceptions about healthcare is crucial to any chance of our eventually emerging with a better system.
July 1, 2012
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare decision, we must refocus. The Court’s decision was never about whether ObamaCare was a good idea, only about whether it was constitutional. The Court found a convoluted way to uphold the law.
That’s done, but the debate on whether ObamaCare’s provisions are good ideas will continue. To date, this debate has been unable to shake off a lot of mythology—things believed about healthcare and our healthcare system in general, or ObamaCare specifically—that simply are not so.
The goals of healthcare reform—covering more Americans, improving outcomes, and doing so more cost effectively—are all laudable, but are all hampered by the continued belief in these myths. Rejecting these misconceptions is crucial to any chance of our eventually emerging with a better system.
Myth #1: Healthcare prices have soared in the recent past
Everyone knows that healthcare prices have soared, but everyone may well be wrong. The statistics we see are always about the amount we spend on healthcare, not the price of healthcare. Consider a comparison of healthcare in the 1950s versus today. In the 1950s, you had none of the subsequent developments in pharmaceuticals, surgery, diagnosis, etc. How much would you pay for that versus today’s healthcare? Not so much, I’m guessing. In fact, if you look around the world, in impoverished countries you can probably find a reasonable facsimile of this 1950s healthcare at a low cost. While this example is intentionally extreme, the measurement problem it illustrates is important. The quality of the best healthcare has soared over time. This measurement problem is not unique to healthcare. Measuring the price inflation in computers is incredibly difficult. If the price of a laptop today is the same as 20 years ago, but the laptop is ridiculously better now, hasn’t the price really fallen dramatically?
Consider another hypothetical. Imagine we develop a cure for all cancers that costs a flat $1 million per person and works perfectly. Let’s assume this is more than the total cost to treat these cancers otherwise. In this case, the amount we spend on healthcare will likely rise dramatically, because it just got much better and we chose to spend more on it. The cure we are talking about did not exist before now, so it does not make sense to ask whether the price rose. Here’s a better question. Are we better off even though we are spending much more on healthcare? Yes, we are, although some will cite the dramatic rise in our healthcare spending and demand that action be taken.
One more, and let’s get really simple. In the olden days, our great-grandparents might have had one pair of reading glasses. Now, many of us have one pair at home, one in the car, one at work, etc. Because we are more prosperous we spend more on reading glasses than our forebears, even though the price has not necessarily changed. Again, there is a gigantic difference between what we spend on something and its price. And again, the comparison of old and new prices is particularly vexing in healthcare because most of the healthcare we buy was not even invented when our great-grandparents were ill.
The above is highly relevant to our ongoing debate because the “soaring price of healthcare” is often cited as a reason we desperately need reform, perhaps radical reform. Even if correctly referred to as the “soaring cost of healthcare,” this is presented as an unambiguously bad thing, when that is certainly false. It’s bad when it’s a function of waste or monopoly power gained through cronyism—undoubtedly part of our system and, as usual, with government the main culprit—but not bad when it’s the result of improvement, undoubtedly a huge component over time. The price of healthcare over time is hard to accurately measure, but those screaming about the price soaring are probably wrong.
Myth #2: The pre-ObamaCare system was ‘insurance’
It was not a system of insurance. Insurance, as practiced everywhere else but healthcare, is about catastrophes. What we had was a government-subsidized payment plan funneled through insurance companies.
OK, this part is going to sting a bit. I never promised you there would be no math. Let’s step back a bit and talk about how insurance works. Few of us buy insurance because we expect to make money on the deal. No, the insurance company expects to profit and we expect to lose a bit. Free marketers and socialists can both surely agree that the insurance companies expect to profit. Well, how do they profit? It’s statistics (I told you it would sting). If they sell 1,000 policies that pay out $100,000 but only 1 percent of the time, they on average pay out $1,000,000 (1,000 policies times a $100,000 payoff times 1 percent, as 99 percent of the time they don’t pay). If they sell them for $1,100 each they take in 1,000 x $1,100 or $1,100,000 and will make a profit of $100,000. But despite the insurance company profiting, insurance can often be a great deal for you. You take out insurance because there are events that would cause you severe financial hardship—for instance, the totaling of a car you can’t afford to replace, the death of your family’s bread winner, or the destruction of your house. It’s worth overpaying a bit to avoid catastrophic financial consequences. We often call insurance like this “catastrophic,” as you’re only paying a small amount to insure against improbable but devastating events. Actually, we usually don’t bother to even call it “catastrophic insurance.” We usually just call it “insurance,” as that’s how it almost always works… except in healthcare!
The insurance companies’ expected profits are not without risk. Companies compete on premiums to see who can sell the insurance for the lowest price while still being profitable, and, importantly, they compete on “underwriting.” Underwriting is attempting to assess risks and charge consumers most accurately, charging more for expensive, more probable risks, and less for the opposite (in my example above, I pretended we knew these risks; in reality, the insurance company has to guess at them). The insurance companies that predict more accurately are generally more profitable, and those that are woefully inaccurate go out of business….
The Halki seminary, founded in 1844 as a center of learning for the Orthodox Eastern Church, was for decades a symbol of religious toleration and minority rights in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. But in 1971, Ankara closed the seminary when the constitutional court, dominated by adherents of Kemalism, the secular ideology of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ruled that only the army was allowed to run nonstate-supervised private colleges. So in March, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Halki seminary would be restored and reopened, it seemed that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country’s ruling faction since 2002, was furthering its reformist agenda of making Turkey a more open society by expanding personal, religious, and economic freedoms.
But while Ankara encourages openness with one hand, it clamps down on it with the other. In May, Erdogan announced that the government would end state subsidies for the arts, closing the spigot on $63 million in annual funding and, in effect, endangering the country’s more than 50 state theaters and artistic venues across the country. The AKP claimed that it did so in the name of private enterprise and was instituting a modern approach to government patronage of the arts; opponents argued that it was a deliberate attempt to silence artists, some of whom had become highly critical of AKP rule. Since the AKP era began, the world has watched closely to see if Turkey would embrace, or abuse, democracy. What is becoming clear is that Erdogan’s strategy is to do both, simultaneously.
The key to understanding democracy under the AKP lies with the meaning of democracy itself. The Yale political scientist Robert Dahl wrote that democracy is defined by the extent to which citizens can participate in civic life and whether they can contest the government’s power. Looking at each factor separately illustrates why Turkey is such a paradox.
When the AKP came to power, it introduced a series of reforms that allowed more Turkish citizens to participate in the political process. Until then, Turks had lived under a constitution imposed by the military that placed severe limitations on democracy, from restrictions on union organizing to freedom of religion. To liberalize Turkish society and secure an invitation to join EU membership negotiations, the AKP abolished civilian-military courts in which civilians accused of political crimes were tried by military officers, banned the death penalty, and amended Turkey’s anti-terrorism law so that the state could no longer prosecute citizens for simply voicing unpopular opinions. The changes also made it more difficult to ban parties and politicians from the political arena. And in September 2010, Turks voted for a number of constitutional changes designed to improve Turkish democracy, including subjecting military officers to the jurisdiction of civilian courts and restructuring the judicial system by streamlining the appeals process, making it more accessible to ordinary citizens.
Turkish minorities have also benefited from AKP reforms. For decades, Turkey banned Kurdish political parties, restricted the use of the Kurdish language, and, in 1987, implemented emergency rule in Kurdish areas. Although limitations still exist on speaking Kurdish in public forums and in the course of official government functions, Kurds can now teach their language in private schools and universities and address crowds in Kurdish at campaign rallies. And there is also a state-run Kurdish-language television station. Other minorities, from Armenians to members of the Greek Orthodox Church, competed in last year’s parliamentary elections for the first time in decades, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has called for more Turkish Jews to serve as diplomats.
These steps have allowed more Turks to participate in civic life than at any time in the modern republic’s history. The country’s recent parliamentary elections featured the most candidates ever. AKP legislation has overturned laws that prevented Turkish citizens from belonging to more than one labor union or collectively bargaining, filing requests for information from the government, and traveling abroad without restriction. As a result, since the AKP came to power, Turkey’s Freedom House scores for political rights and civil liberties have gone up, putting Turkey close to becoming a “free” nation, the highest ranking that Freedom House assigns…