David R. Henderson  

Giving Thanks

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I'm up early this Thanksgiving day, before my wife and daughter. My daughter came home from San Francisco yesterday afternoon and for that alone I'm thankful. She, my wife, and a friend had a great visit last night.

Now to my giving thanks for things that relate more directly to Econlog. There are so many things to be thankful for. Here's what I wrote in 2008, the first year that I blogged on Econlog, and I'll add some thoughts afterward.

I have so much to be thankful for. When I think about growing up on the cold prairies in Canada and going to our neighbors' house to watch Walt Disney on Sunday nights, I realize how far I've come. We were the last family in town to get a TV. In 1961, we bought a used 1955 black and white Philco TV. I couldn't conceive of a color TV, let alone one that is 42 inches and that I can pause when the phone rings. If you had told me I would ever get to go to Disneyland, I would have thought you had been smoking something. No, that's not quite right, because the thing that people say you smoked is something I had never heard of. And I've been to Disneyland at least six times. If you had told me that my family would have two nice cars that would last over 100,000 miles each, I wouldn't have believed you. If you had told me I could fly to visit a friend on a weekend, I wouldn't have believed you. And I'm thankful for all of it, and for the somewhat-free economy that has helped me achieve it. I'm also thankful to some of my mentors who helped me along the way: my high-school vice principal, Brian Parker, my economist mentor, Harold Demsetz, of course my late friend Milton Friedman, my wife who has edited my writing for 25 years, Rena Henderson (although she doesn't edit these posts), and the leader of my first men's group, Fred Jealous, who is the proud father of the president and CEO of the NAACP. And I'm thankful for my wonderful daughter, Karen Henderson, who is coming into her own as a strong, joyous young adult.

My more recent thoughts are along the lines of something that Steven Landsburg wrote on his site. I'm thankful for the the medical care that, in 1995, saved my life. Here's what I wrote about it in my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:

In May 2000, Senator Paul Wellstone said of pharmaceutical companies, "We have an industry that makes exorbitant profits off sickness, misery, and illness of people, and that is obscene." In a literal sense, the first part of his sentence is right: Health care providers do make money off our sickness, just as the food industry makes money off our hunger. But the food industry doesn't make money by keeping us hungry; it makes money by feeding us. Similarly, the health care firms make money, not by keeping us sick, but by making us well.

One day in the fall of 1995, I got very sick quickly. I was unable to keep liquids in my body and I lost almost 10 pounds in less than 24 hours. My wife took me to the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, which we locals call CHOMP. There, I rested in a nice, quiet, private room in a clean, wonderfully comfortable bed, while an intravenous device pumped about 8 pounds of fluid into my body. I slept 22 of the next 24 hours. The bill for one day, slightly over $2,000, was mostly covered by my health insurance. But I would have gladly paid the whole amount out of my own pocket. My doctor later told me that every cell in my body had been damaged and that, had I not gone to the hospital that evening, I might have died. For the next few months, whenever I drove by that hospital, I cheered. Sometimes, when I was alone, I blew that hospital a silent kiss. The men and women working there didn't know me and didn't even care much about me, but spent their best energy making me well and, maybe, saving my life. However much they like helping people heal, they would not have been there if someone hadn't paid them. They made money off my sickness. Bless them.

And thank goodness there are countless other strangers all around the world working late at night in labs, trying and trying again to find drugs that will cure sicknesses that I, or those I care about, will probably have in the future. What motivates many of them, besides their belief in their work, is that a drug company is paying them. What motivates the drug company is the large revenue it can earn by developing drugs that cure diseases and save lives. Think about your family. I bet you can think of family members who were seriously ill who could have avoided illness had these innovations existed earlier. It's true of my family. My father had polio in both legs in 1944. My sister had polio in 1952. Unfortunately for them, the drug company Parke-Davis was unable to produce high-quality Salk vaccine until February 1954. Now we take for granted that we won't get polio--and that's thanks to a drug company that wanted to make money for its shareholders and thanks to some scientists who wanted to make money for themselves and their families. I sure as hell do want people making money finding cures for my sicknesses.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
liberty writes:

I enjoyed your post very much. I would just like one clarification. You wrote:

"The bill for one day, slightly over $2,000, was mostly covered by my health insurance. But I would have gladly paid the whole amount out of my own pocket. My doctor later told me that every cell in my body had been damaged and that, had I not gone to the hospital that evening, I might have died."

What about the person who has no insurance and no $2000 -- would they have died if they had the same illness?

David R. Henderson writes:

@liberty,
I enjoyed your post very much.
Thanks. I enjoyed writing it.
What about the person who has no insurance and no $2000 -- would they have died if they had the same illness?
The country whose medical care system I know best is the United States. My answer is, for the United States, almost certainly no. I can’t vouch for Canada. In the United States, hospitals often will take patients who are really sick even if they can’t pay, and this was generally true even before Reagan signed the law requiring it. And don’t forget one other option: Hospitals will try to collect and, if you can’t pay right away, will usually set a payment plan that includes, IIRC, zero interest.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Nathan W writes:

The scientists and researchers make money whether they work for the government or a private hospital, and it is entirely possible that doctors might be willing to take home slightly less princely sums for their endless hours of work when working in a system which ensures access of/for all. Those same prairies, right around that time, were home to an experimental approach which has proven to offer much more efficient, and better, average health access to the average taxpaying individual than in the USA, and that despite having a much lower density of population and hence fewer opportunities for economies of scale in service delivery.

Something to be thankful for!

AS writes:

Nathan, you are mistaken. When Canadians are really sick, they come to the US for treatment.

Tom West writes:

When Canadians are really sick, they come to the US for treatment.

Come now. Surely we can do better than that old canard. There is healthcare traffic in *both* directions, for different reasons, but it's essentially insignificant (few tenths of a percent).

There is, however, no doubt that if price is no object, then you can get the highest end healthcare in the world in the USA, and thus very wealthy citizens around the world go the US for treatment of very serious cases.

But it's pretty much a negligible fraction of any country (including Americans!) that can afford that level of medical care. It is, however, high profile.

For plain old middle-of-the-road medical care, most Western countries are surprisingly comparable in outcomes, especially between the US and Canada.

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