Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"Moral Hazard" and the War

This article by Uwe Reinhardt from Monday's Washington Post makes a good point about how Americans have a very low, if any, sense of the cost of the wars abroad--emotionally, financially, etc.
The administration and Congress have gone to extraordinary lengths to insulate voters from the money cost of the wars -- to the point even of excluding outlays for them from the regular budget process. Furthermore, they have financed the wars not with taxes but by borrowing abroad.

The strategic shielding of most voters from any emotional or financial sacrifice for these wars cannot but trigger the analogue of what is called "moral hazard" in the context of health insurance, a field in which I've done a lot of scholarly work.

...Moral hazard can explain why, in wartime, the TV anchors on the morning and evening shows barely make time to report on the wars, lest the reports displace the silly banter with which they seek to humor their viewers. Do they ever wonder how military families with loved ones in the fray might feel after hearing ever so briefly of mayhem in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Moral hazard also can explain why the general public is so noticeably indifferent to the plight of our troops and their families. To be sure, we paste cheap magnetic ribbons on our cars to proclaim our support for the troops. But at the same time, we allow families of reservists and National Guard members to slide into deep financial distress as their loved ones stand tall for us on lethal battlefields and the family is deprived of these troops' typically higher civilian salaries. We offer a pittance in disability pay to seriously wounded soldiers who have not served the full 20 years that entitles them to a regular pension.

...When our son, then a recent Princeton graduate, decided to join the Marine Corps in 2001, I advised him thus: "Do what you must, but be advised that, flourishing rhetoric notwithstanding, this nation will never truly honor your service, and it will condemn you to the bottom of the economic scrap heap should you ever get seriously wounded."

...Unlike the editors of the nation's newspapers, I am not at all impressed by people who resolve to have others stay the course in Iraq and in Afghanistan. At zero sacrifice, who would not have that resolve?


william t nelson said...

I agree that the television news sugar coats a lot of things to a scandalous degree. I would be interested if anyone has a road map towards reforming the field.

CNN did a special a couple of weeks ago about the present state of Iraq. They had segments about the freedom of filmmakers in Baghdad, kids playing in public pools, and a wedding party. Then they flashed up graphics about how things like cell phone service is so much better now. They didn't mention that insurgent groups were the ones pressuring the providers to improve, despite that it would be much wiser [but more expensive] to use encrypted radios to coordinate attacks, as the Italian incident showed. I am sure CNN also included the obligatory footage of amputee soldier in rehabilitation, as is customary.

They also included clips of the young producer who apparently designed the whole program. She spoke varied clich├ęd platitudes and generally didn't seem interested in giving a realistic appraisal of the ongoing situation.

The difference between television and newspapers is significant. I imagine there are a number of reasons for poor reporting on cable networks. Whatever the reason, if a reporter wants to do something serious, he will definitely have to fight the institutional norms. There is a great deal of institutional inertia, and it will take more than individuals' efforts to change the overall trend.

Elaine said...

Great comment Will! Thanks! You should really start a blog of your own!

Elaine said...

Oh never mind. I see you have one. Do you want me to link to it?

william t nelson said...

I don't really want to have my own [political] blog. I hope to keep my page's content close to that of "T.M.I.: Blogging since May, Drinking since Noon" so that I don't get blacklisted like my recently graduated friend from the Univeristy of Chicago. I'm content to reply to posts on your site and this drunken school paper editor from UTexas.

What I should do is post book reports on my site, because without writing a two-page summary of something, it's pretty much impossible to remember anything about it other than the thesis and one colorful example, eg the sociology of oral sex in Interaction Ritual Chains. Also, I need to post more about the immigrant business owners I play cards with, because my newly unemployed friend mentioned above gets a kick out of those stories.