It’s hard to figure out how to react to this Michael O’Hanlon column on health care. The first thought that struck me was “What the hell is Michael O’Hanlon doing talking about health care?”, but on further consideration that’s not quite right. My professional training is in international relations, but that hardly stops me from blathering nonsensically about whatever strikes my fancy, so far be it from me to call O’Hanlon out for choosing to write nonsensical blather on whatever he wants to write about. But O’Hanlon’s foray still struck me wrong, and I think there’s a reason why. While I only occasionally trot out my affiliation with the Patterson School or my Ph.D. in political science when writing about an international relations issue, those credentials are nevertheless there for anyone who cares to investigate. Moreover, even in a forum like the blogosphere those credentials lend a certain authority to what I write about IR, and that authority probably seeps a bit both into topics that directly relate to political scienceish questions (most political scientists have a handle on the functioning of electoral institutions, for example), and into topics that don’t (Farley’s Ph.D. demonstrates that he’s no moron, so maybe Cubs fans are evil).
But here’s what I wouldn’t do; whatever seepage might occur, I wouldn’t invoke the authority of Patterson or of the University of Washington in defense of writing outside of my area of professional expertise. O’Hanlon comes very close to doing this, noting that the roundtable was a Brookings event, and that he’s a Brookings general analyst (although I’m uncertain of that; does O’Hanlon actually do any non-foreign policy analysis?). A bit more twitchy, I think, is that he tries to draw the discussion into an area on which he might legitimately be called a professional:
Critics of President Bush often point out that he has asked very little in the way of sacrifice from most Americans during this time of war. Our troops abroad, our homeland security officials at home and the families of these brave individuals bear a huge burden while the rest of us are asked to go shopping and given tax cuts. But whatever one’s view of Mr. Bush’s politics, it is also true that he was in part being responsive to a political environment in which shared sacrifice has gone out of style.
And then he starts to talk about health care. It doesn’t really make any sense, except as an effort to say “Hey, I’m a foreign policy expert, and this is me talking about health care policy, which relates to foreign policy in… uh, some fashion.” That said, I don’t think that O’Hanlon himself crosses any really obvious line in misrepresenting his expertise. I would never hire O’Hanlon to write an op-ed on health care policy, but that’s more of a problem with the editor than the author.
The much bigger problem, though, is that O’Hanlon writes about health care very, very badly. And I don’t just mean that he gets the policy wrong; check this out:
But even more, in keeping perhaps with the down-to-earth pragmatism and Granite State sensibilities of the people of New Hampshire, I was struck by how many of the panelists as well as audience members talked about what normal American citizens will have to do themselves. Politicians were not asked to do it all for us. Evocative of John Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” line, the participants in the event described a number of sacrifices and efforts that regular citizens needed to make.
Jesus, is he planning on running for President? Normally the good folks of New Hampshire only receive such attentions from candidates on the stump. I have to wonder; do people in Washington D.C. and northern Virginia lack “down-to-earth pragmatism and Granite State sensibilities” (whatever the latter may be), and are they in some sense abnormal Americans?
In the rest of the column O’Hanlon demonstrates that he has paid very little attention to the health care debate in the United States over the past five years. As I’m no expert on the subject myself, I’ll leave that part to someone else. Foreign policy specialists should, as a general principle, try not to write overmuch about things they know nothing about.