ObamaCare: A round square

In the journalism business you work with words that convey concepts and ideas. Sometimes concrete, sometimes nebulous, often slippery.

For the sake of brevity, it is desirable to have proper and generally accepted labels for things. Once something has a name, it has heft. When it comes to a major issue in the news, it is good to have a peg.

Too often labels are in dispute and subject to change in acceptability over time. The politically correct term colored was replaced by black which was replaced by African-American. Is it Hispanic, Latino or Chicano? You can start a fight with your choice of liberal, progressive or socialist — though some contend those are distinctions without a difference.

I’m constantly reading the trade publications, looking for ideas and best practices. I download speeches and lectures about journalism and communication. I even purchase college lectures about argumentation and rational expression.

I recently bought a lecture series from The Teaching Company and listened to part of it on a long drive. The course is called “Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World Through Experience and Reason,” by University of Richmond philosophy professor James Hall.

Thus far the course is plowing through classic logic structure and terminology, some a bit tedious, some obvious, some refreshingly new to me. I’ve learned about the ideas of Plato and Aristotle with hints of what’s to come from Descartes, Hume and Newton. Hall has explained in detail classical syllogistic logic.

Then, among all the terms being bandied about, the professor throws out an aside — a jest, if you will — that puts a name to a concept I’ve been trying to classify. The name makes the concept more easily graspable and provides an apt metaphor.

Hall was going through one his many variations on the old syllogism: all humans are mortal, all Greeks are human; therefore, all Greeks are mortal. There are members in every class mentioned, but then …

“There are what we call null classes,” professor Hall remarks. “Classes that we can name with clarity, but are vacuous. …”

Then in simple, easy-to-follow prose, he described such a null class in a way that almost made sense.

“The class of all round squares would be an elegant example of a null class,” Hall says.

“Time out. You know what a round square is. Sure you do. A round square is a geometrical, equal sided, equiangular, rectangle, every point on the perimeter of which is equidistant from its center. Right.

“That’s why there aren’t any. The business about the angles and the sides and all of that and the business about equidistance from the center are simply radically incompatible. It’s not going to fly. There are no round squares.”

Eureka, I’ve found it — the name for ObamaCare. It is a null class, containing elements that are radically incompatible.

Why, simply read Obama’s September speech to Congress or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s letter to the Review-Journal published a week ago today.

They propose a law that will make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition or to drop coverage for just about any reason. Insurers may not cap the amount of coverage in a year or a lifetime. The law would put a limit on out-of-pocket expenses. Insurance companies would be required to cover, at no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care. And in its latest iteration, the law would require an insurer to spend 90 percent of its premiums on actual health care — as opposed to profits, administration, advertising or salaries.

And all of this will be done while reducing the federal deficit through elimination of waste and fraud, Obama promises.

Reid’s letter closely followed the Obama script.

“Insurance companies will no longer be able to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions, and they will no longer be able to drop people who get sick when they need coverage the most,” Sen. Reid wrote. “The bill provides protection from unfair out-of-pocket costs, and restricts arbitrary limits on the amount of coverage you can receive. We end discrimination based on gender and limit insurers’ ability to charge more based on age. We will also allow young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance. The bill also eliminates co-pays and deductibles for preventive services, putting an emphasis on wellness and prevention.”

Require more services and pay less money? The perfect description of a round square.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information and meetings. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.

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