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August 26, 2009
I am working -- well, thinking, but then thinking is work -- on a book with my colleague Carol Stone, who writes Ways of the World, the Geranium Farm's column on ways in which people of faith can think about economic issues. Although she's worked on Wall Street as an economist for many years, what she does for us is help people who don't understand the intricacies of what happens with the world's goods: how it happens, what might happen, what can't happen, what could happen.

Carol and I disagree politically much of the time, which is one of the most important gifts of our working relationship. The Geranium Farm doesn't have a party line. It's a garden, diverse by nature, and competition of viewpoints is a primary means by which human understanding grows. This is very important in times such as these, in which shouting slogans at each other passes for political discourse, and people refuse to engage meaningfully with those with whom they do not agree.

I am not a economist, that's for sure. The subject's counterintuitive intricacies baffle me, as they baffle most of us. An economy is like a water balloon: squeeze it in one place and it bulges out in another. Solutions which seem on first glance to be just the thing can sprout unlovely consequences down the road. But we like to decide things based on data we gather in that first glance, to talk first and ask questions later. We want everything to be explainable in a sound bite. That laziness of ours leads us into places nobody would want to go.

Yesterday Carol wrote her first piece about health care in a while. As is almost always the case when I read her, I find that I need to do more thinking. I know, because I have lived and been hospitalized there, that medical care in Italy -- which is paid for by the government, from people's taxes -- is very good. That the scary buzzwords people toss around here about it, like "rationing" and "death panels" and "socialism" (often used in combination with the word "Nazi," as if the two were synonyms!) are silly. They are uninformed, based on sound bites rather than disciplined study or experience. I know that doctors make medical decisions there, not government bureaucrats or "panels," and I know that the cost of a medical test isn't the first concern in the decision about whether or not to order it. I know that people there don't sue each other as much as they do here. I know that prescription drugs are much cheaper there. I know that life expectancy in Italy is longer than it is in the United States, as it is in all of Western Europe.

But do I then know that such a system would work here? Not necessarily. Our population is much larger. Our economy is huge. Our population is much more diverse. Our history is not theirs. All these things matter, I am sure, but how do they matter, exactly? I don't know. Although I am very favorably disposed to a single payer system, I need to think and listen some more, and need someone to help me think and listen intelligently.

And not only about health care. How about world hunger? What's the best way to help people out of poverty? How about environmental impact, and the struggle between developing countries and what we used to call "first world" countries? What about the relationship between personal financial management and the national economy? All ethical and political issues, but all economic ones, as well.

Most of my writing is about the garden. Or about prayer. About families, cats, birds. Warm little essays that hope to touch the heart wisely, in just a few paragraphs. Writing a book with Carol, one in which we argued about difficult economic issues, would certainly be a switch and a stretch. But the mind develops best on unfamiliar territory, not by doing the same thing over and over again.

Maybe I should write the book of essays about Italy first. Or maybe do them both at the same time -- I've done that before, and seem to remember promising myself never to do it again. But then, it is late August, after all. This is the time of year when students return to school. However long it's been, you remember the excitement. It's time to start.
You can read Carol Stone in Ways of the World on the Geranium Farm, and if there's something you don't understand, you can ask her a question.
The book with Carol would not be my first switch. You may never have seen my short collection of essays entitled Mass in Time of War, which deals with 9/11 and the war in which we are still involved. It's at Amazon,
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