Three news updates: GDP, airplanes, health politics

1. GDP department: The NYT yesterday had a very good, double-length op-ed about the folly of relying strictly on GDP and its growth as a proxy for human happiness, social progress, or overall national success. (Simple illustration: home security systems add to national economic activity, but the need for them may illustrate a decline in real human happiness and wellbeing.) Back in 1995, the Atlantic had a very good cover story to very similar effect. I don't know whether it's discouraging that the same case has to be made again and again or encouraging to see similar logic being applied. But if you were interested in the NYT piece, the Atlantic one (by Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe) is a worthy  complement.

2. Airplane department: I mentioned shortly after the tragic Hudson River aerial crash that a person who had never driven cars - let's say an Amish farmer -- might look at traffic on a busy roadway and think: how do they keep from hitting each other?!? How can it possibly be safe? Similarly, people with no experience in airplanes might look at areas like the Hudson River "VFR corridor" and think: how do they keep from hitting each other?!? How can it possibly be safe?

If you would like to hear how this perspective sounds when applied in a news broadcast, there was a specimen on NPR's (of course generally admirable) All Things Considered this evening,  here. Contrary to general assumption (and the specific assumption of this segment), air traffic controllers are not what keep airplanes from running into each other. William Langewiesche, a long-time pilot and son of a revered aviation writer, explained this point in the Atlantic in a story about controllers several years ago. In brief: "controlled" flight is crucial when airplanes are in clouds or when for other reasons the pilots can't see where they're going; and when flights are being sluiced and sequenced into busy airports. It's also mandatory for all flights at the altitudes where jets fly. But otherwise, the pilots are the ones keeping their planes from hitting each other, as car drivers and boat skippers do. This crash was a tragedy that should be studied, but not from the perspective of a person on a buggy who views a collision as a sign that roads are inherently unsafe. (Minor factual-error complaint after the jump.*)

3. Health department: In response to this item yesterday, I have received abundant correspondence to the effect of: especially after you've come back from China, how can you possibly be against free debate? It would be so wrong to ram a bill right down the throat of an unprepared Congress and public.

Yes, yes, we're all in favor of free debate. But organized efforts to shout down public officials at "town meetings" are not my idea of what Thomas Paine, John Peter Zenger, Socrates, and the rest were trying to promote. Nor is propagation of demonstrably false information, including the "death panel" scare that has most effectively been debunked by a conservative Republican Senator from Georgia.

Below and after the jump, a note from a reader who has "genuine" concerns about the Obama plan but is worried that irrational "birther"-style opposition will keep the serious concerns from being aired. I don't agree with all of his concerns, as noted below; but I think his analysis of the politics is right:

I completely agree with the observations you and [Steven] Pearlstein make about the Republican positioning on the health care debate.  I also agree with Steven's statement  that "Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off."  However, that does not translate into automatic agreement on the plan as proposed--a presumption that the advocates of the current health care bill would have us accept as true.

All politicians, whether dictatorial thugs or elected representatives of mature democracies,  use the mean, stupid or just plain foolish opposition as a reason to support their positions.  If "those people" are against it, then it must be good.  This is always a convenient way to skirt the detail of policy proposals.  But in continuing to deny the financial implications of the costs of the program as proposed, those supporting the bill are just as guilty of untruthful debate as the Republicans Pearlstein chastises; they are just more polite about it.  Obama's proposals, including but not limited to health care, will move about ten percentage points of GDP from the private sector to the government sector. [JF note: I don't agree with this number.]  This will require broad based tax increases.  The failure of the Administration and Congress to be honest about this is as discouraging as the Republican antics.  They obviously feel that they need to lie to get the needed support. The irony here is that I believe most Americans, given the recent performance of the private sector, would support this transfer of the economy to the government, particulary as the tax increases would be skewed toward those who are better off.

The irony in the Republican behavior is that it will cause some thinking Americans to decide to support the health care bill to send a message to the Republicans to grow up.  We need to send that message at the ballot box, not as part of important policy debates.


* Here's the technical cavil about the NPR aviation story: The report said that because of the crash, airplanes in busy areas like this might someday be required to have "transponders." They already are. The Federal Aviation Regulations, part 91.215, say that within 30 miles of  "Class B" airports -- big ones, like LaGuardia, Newark, and JFK -- airplanes must have and use a "Mode C" transponder, which sends back an identifying signal when air-traffic control radar hits it. Maybe the correspondent meant a traffic-alert system, which many modern small planes have, which offers each pilot a display of any nearby traffic; or a "TCAS" collision-avoidance system like those in airliners, which automatically steers the plane out of the way if it projects that the plane's path will cross another's. Below is a description of the relevant part of the FARs, with the first sentence of 2(b) being the relevant part. You have to take tests on this stuff as part of pilot certification. FWIW.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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