05/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Do Leading Economists and Pro-Life Progressive Activists Have in Common? They Both Support Health Reform

I'm proud of two letters that were released this week. The first was signed by 40 of the nation's leading experts in health economics and public finance. This letter should reassure political moderates who worry cost control issues. It says:

The health care reforms passed by the House and Senate -- with recent modifications proposed by President Obama -- include serious measures that will slow the growth of health care spending. Putting the brakes on health care spending will take multiple measures, and we must start now. Democratic and Republican experts have proposed many different approaches to "bending the cost curve." The President's proposal incorporates a long list of measures that will control rising costs and reinforce each other.

Signers include three Nobel Prize winners, including Kenneth Arrow, who founded the modern field of health economics. Nerd confession: I own "Economist trading cards" for Arrow and others who signed this letter. Randall Ellis doesn't have a card, but he is President-Elect of the American Society of Health Economists, and he signed the letter. I don't have cards for Henry Aaron, Alan Blinder, David Cutler, Alan Garber, Jon Gruber, Daniel Kahneman, Harold Luft, Will Manning, Len Nichols, Alice Rivlin, Harold Pollack, Richard Thaler, and Richard Zeckhauser. They signed it too.

These men and women realize that the current bill provides a platform for serious cost control. Ironically, the bill provides a platform for truly bipartisan efforts because it (a) settles the moral and ideological commitment to near-universal coverage, and (b) includes so many provisions supported by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The second letter may be even more significant. It's signed by a bunch of people I've almost never heard of. Yet that only proves that as a pro-choice secular Jewish professor who supports gay marriage, I'm rather outside their core demographic. At this moment, this second letter is probably more significant.

As covered in the invaluable National Catholic Reporter, signers, such as Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Stephen F. Schneck of the Catholic University of America, express the views of millions of pro-life Catholics and Protestants who identify with a deep tradition of religious social reform. These men and women put to the lie Glenn Beck's jackass notion that fighting for economic and social justice is somehow ungodly.

It's easy for liberals to overlook the strongly progressive strains in both the evangelical and Catholic communities. In part this reflects our own stereotyping. In part this is an understandable reaction to the Church's hurtful and harmful positions on birth control and gay rights -- views which are fortunately rejected by most of their parishoners.

Yet there is more to the story. The Church has supported universal health coverage for decades. Its views on undocumented immigration, progressive taxation, and other topics are considerably to the left of most Democrats. Every day, Catholic clergy and parishoners walk the walk every day helping millions of disadvantaged people around the world. The same can be said for many within the evangelical community.

Many of my best students at the University of Chicago are joint divinity students, wishing to acquire social work training to better-assist their parishioners dealing with personal and family concerns.

The signers of this letter aren't backing away from their (in my view misguided) anti-choice stands. Indeed they point out that the Senate bill includes quite restrictive language regarding federal funding of abortion. They also point out that health reform would help millions of vulnerable pregnant women. They don't point out -- but it's true -- that this bill will provide health services that should prevent many unwanted pregnancies, while providing important economic help that may make millions of low-income women regard abortion as a less-necessary choice than it now frequently appears to be.

They are saying that they don't want to bring down a crucial bill that would help millions of people so they can grandstand on the abortion issue. As they put it:

We are now at a critical moment in the history of our country. More than 30 million Americans may finally gain access to a health care system that is affordable -- providing families, children and seniors with fundamental care that is essential to human dignity.

Amen to that. We can fight about abortion and the culture wars another day. Right now, let's focus on our common humanity and get this done.

I hope Representatives Stupak, Kaptur, and others are listening. If they help to kill this bill, they will hurt millions of people, destroy their own place in the Democratic Party, and dishonor the progressive religious tradition they claim to promote.

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