One of the most distressing aspects of modern public discourse in America is the extent to which political mythologies are so imprinted on the public mind, not just among the folks in the gen. pop., but in the media too, that they serve as the underlying bedrock of all discussion. These premises usually aren’t even mentioned, and simply serve as the starting point for debate.
Gun control, say. The discussion is always about “sensible” measures (i.e., measures not too upsetting to the NRA, which is, in fact, an impossibility), which could be implemented while respecting the Constitutional right to bear arms. Restricting sales of military-grade sniper rifles to people who are known to be insane, say. Maybe a two day waiting period. That’s where you start from. This is mad. Where the conversation should be starting is with questioning why any modern industrialized society needs an obsolete amendment to its Constitution that addressed a problem that no longer exists – might it not simply be repealed? People could still have the right to own weapons, subject to law, but a constitutional right? Why? That’s where the conversation should start.
Or consider the War on Terror. The conversation starts with the assumption that terror attacks by foreign extremist groups represent the gravest existential threat faced by America today, from whence we can then proceed to discussing how many hundreds of billions of dollars should be spent on it, how many wars fought over it, and how many Constitutional rights surrendered in the process. I’m not saying the problem doesn’t merit a very great deal of attention. I do contend, however, that it’s a thing of stunning wonder to watch a superpower turn itself inside out over a threat that has killed roughly 3,200 people over the past 20 years, when ballpark 37,000 people die each year from guns, 38,000 form traffic accidents, and an astounding 70,000 from drug overdoses caused primarily by opioids. Each year. Perhaps these things are even more dangerous? Or, if the argument is that deaths since 9/11 have been so low because of all that’s been done to fight the War on Terror, why not similar concern over fighting things that take 48 times as many lives every year as were killed on 9/11?
Or, take fiscal responsibility. It’s a truism that Democrats are profligate with public dollars, and that Republicans are deficit hawks who bring America’s finances back into good order when they hold power. This is absolutely false, and easily proved to be. George H.W. Bush was the only Republican who did much of anything about deficits in my lifetime, and he wouldn’t have, if the Democrats hadn’t run Congress. It’s dead simple to find any number of charts and statistical analyses that tell you this basic story in different ways:
At the moment, following ludicrous tax cuts enacted by the Republican Congress, initiated by supposed fiscal hawk Paul Ryan, the deficit is climbing again, and is projected to reach $1 trillion dollars a year by 2020. That’s one trillion.
Or how about economic prowess? It’s Republicans who make the economy boom and create jobs, right?
Now, as Americans are finally beginning to wake up to what an appalling hash their society has made out of health care, upon which they manage to simultaneously spend 17% of their GDP to produce outcomes that are less impressive than those in other industrialized nations, while leaving tens of millions unable to afford medical care, we’re supposed to start from this premise: universal public healthcare is unaffordable.
That’s always the opening salvo. How are we going to pay for this? Built into this are other assumptions, among them that the current tax regime is somehow inevitable, that the ridiculous cost of American health care is a natural and equally inevitable product of market forces, and that a public option would place an additional burden on the treasury that you couldn’t possibly address by raising revenues.
Just as a snarky aside, note that when it’s something the Right desires, like massive tax cuts for the rich, or endless wars abroad, a question like how do you propose to pay for this? is never part of the debate (not seriously, anyway; when pressed, Republicans will haul out the long since discredited Laffer Curve to claim tax cuts will pay for themselves, a risible falsehood that they must know to be ridiculous by now). Still, with anything dramatic like universal health care, it’s a legitimate concern to raise, except the inquiry is framed the wrong way. The real question is not how can we pay for this? – it’s how does every other developed nation pay for it? Because we all do, one way or another.
The answer is quite simple, though neither doctors, nor private insurers, nor pharmaceutical companies, want Americans to know. By shifting health care to the public sphere, many efficiencies are created – for example, by making the Big Pharma companies negotiate with one giant buyer that has all the leverage, by making predatory pricing impossible ($25.00 aspirin tablet, anybody?) and by regulating costs for medical procedures – and the overall cost of health care drops dramatically. Look, this is the percentage of GDP spent by various countries on health:
At the same time, yes, taxes must be raised to fund the program, but nobody has to buy private insurance, which in the U.S. is often ludicrously expensive and full of co-pays and deductibles, and may yet rule out coverage for pre-existing conditions – that battle is far from over. The result is that the out-of-pocket cost for individuals is much lower – they’re just paying the government instead of rapacious, predatory private interests, and they pay much less. Look:
Universal health care is not perfect, by any means. We Canadians have all kinds of complaints. Trust me, though, nobody in Canada would trade our system for America’s, and neither would anybody anywhere else. As with so many things these days, we look at the U.S., and the sublime confidence its people have in their own peculiar way of doing things, and sadly shake our heads.
America has plenty of money. A proper allocation of resources and public policy priorities would make all sorts of costly things more efficient, more equitable, and eminently affordable, like education, public parks, first responders, safe drinking water, or better sanitation, you name it. If they can pour 2.4 trillion dollars down the twin holes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – yes, 2.4 trillion dollars, so far, and that’s the Congressional Budget Office talking, not me – they can afford to expand Medicare, for crying out loud. Of course, the extremely well-off are going to have to be made to pay their fair share, and within this philosophy what’s fair diverges a whole hell of a lot from what rich Americans always contend. Yet every other developed nation, despite doing things differently, still has its wealthy plutocrats. The obscenely rich are doing just fine here in Canada, or over there in Germany, and Sweden too. Democratic socialism, as proposed these days, isn’t communism, isn’t really socialism as classically defined, and is by no means the death of privilege. Nobody is proposing taking the means of all economic activity out of private hands and administering them through government. Nor is anybody talking about preventing private actors from making a profit and owning their own businesses when governments take greater regulatory control over certain economic sectors. All it means is taking a few very important things out of private control when private outcomes are either insufficient, unfair, or only for the rich.
You know what provides the purest example of this sort of “socialist” endeavour? National defence. The purest. Everybody pitches in for the common good, and something is provided that the private sector either could not or would not create – navies with great big ships, and air forces with supersonic fighters, that sort of thing. Private companies still make a huge profit selling things to the Defence Department, but private interests don’t dictate who gets defended or how they get defended, and don’t themselves set the cost of defence for the individual (ideally, anyway). The actual defenders – the Army, navy et al – don’t work for Boeing and Lockheed. Variations on this model can be seen in the provision of roads, police forces, public utilities, damn near everything that makes life bearable in a civil society, really. It’s a mixed model, in which government sometimes interposes itself between private enterprise and service delivery. Sometimes it’s best if the workforce at the tip of the spear is employed, paid, and tasked by government. The private enterprise still exists. Lots of private concerns get obscenely wealthy. We’re not talking Marxism here.
What the right-wing politicians call “socialist” are what economists refer to as “public goods”, that is, things that unregulated, un-intermediated capitalist markets do terribly, or not at all. It’s the foundation of every organized society on Earth – the only variable is degree. Where do Americans get the idea that they aren’t already “socialist” within this model? How were they duped into thinking that such “socialism” is an evil practised only by tyrants in nations full of oppressed drudges, where no one is free to get ahead on their own? It’s madness. They drive home on well-lit city streets, flip on the lights, pour themselves a nice glass of potable water, rest easy knowing the police and fire department are just a phone call away, eat a sandwich full of processed meat that they know to be safe, many of them waiting eagerly for their next social security cheque, and then nod agreeably when some rich white guy tells them government is evil and public services are that most disgusting of festering wrongs, socialism.
Americans are brainwashed, in a way. They accept as quasi-religious dogma all sorts of propositions which have been proved wrong, time and again, in other societies whose citizens do just as well or better than their own, by any index you want to choose. Life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, education, wealth distribution, and even, these days, democratic freedom – how many Americans know that their country is now rated a “flawed democracy” by the international organizations that reckon such things, behind 19 nations among their industrialized peers?
Do they realize that if UN monitors had been brought in to supervise the latest elections in Georgia, they would certainly have declared them to be rigged?
Every American should be made to read this article, or one of the dozens of others just like it that can be found within 1.8 seconds of pushing “enter” on the Google search:
Here’s the headline, if you want to cut to the chase:
Americans keep telling themselves they’re the greatest nation on Earth, now or ever. The best damn country God ever ordained, the shining city on a hill. It’s time they started going down the list and asking themselves: greatest at what? Once they tabulate the sobering results, maybe they can get down to figuring out that yes, they can easily afford to do better. Just like everybody else.
They might also ask themselves in whose interest it has been to warp their political and economic systems into the misshapen messes they are today, and who really benefits. Is it Joe Lunchbucket? Or some prick at Goldman Sachs?