Unhealthy Dialogue

The mainstream, narrow view of the political spectrum in the US is a danger to us all

I had the fortune this afternoon of sitting through the most worthless class that I’ve been to since moving to Saint Petersburg three months ago. The 45 minutes of discussion was only academically worthless though – it provided a fascinating look into how ridiculous the debate on health care can be in this country, and that’s without once mentioning death panels.

No one could argue that the debate has been minimal in participants, or time; indeed, it seems to have been over designed and drawn out so much that nobody has a clue what’s going on. But it has been small in one sense. It is not surprising that squeezing through even timid reforms, on any major issue, is almost impossible when Americans’ view of the world and the political spectrum is often so narrow.

The widespread fear of communism or even socialism might be justified if people knew what these words meant. When the government gives massive amounts of money to banks and car companies, that is not a government takeover of the economy. It is the opposite: a corporate takeover of the government. They have gotten that money for absolutely nothing. There could scarcely be a clearer indication of who is running the show. And, aside from the sheer numbers involved, it is not new. Giving money to rich corporations is as American as apple pie. This means we get the worst of both worlds: the free market system leaves individuals to sink or swim, while the redistribution of wealth goes the wrong way.

One seemingly intelligent student reasoned that many more people come to the US than to the likes of Canada or Denmark for health care, because America is the best country in the world. Putting aside the fact that neither Canada nor Denmark borders a poor country, this line of argument is both massively arrogant and massively flawed. It’s true that the US population is still rising faster than most other rich countries, partially due to immigration, and remains a popular destination for tourists. But providing a quality of life – including health care – that is better than that provided by the dictators and extractive economic policies that the Washington consensus allows is hardly a cause for celebration. As a friend of mine once observed, people who were really free and lived in the best country in the world might not feel the need to go on about it all the time.

Even supposedly progressive people in this debate appear to be coming from a very center-right position. Somebody arguing that socialism and democracy can co-exist cited Britain. All of Europe is, at the core, capitalist, and Britain is one of the starkest examples of this. Like the US, it has a hypocritical neoliberal economy (the government spent over a trillion dollars on bank bailouts), a welfare system that is constantly under attack, and a strong culture of casualization. The nearest thing to socialism is indeed the National Health Service, although it is heavily involved with the rest of the market economy.

There are many problems with the NHS. It encourages people to depend on faraway state institutions, rather than deal with problems in their community. It fosters an attitude of supremacy with regard to Western medicine, and encourages us to deal with the symptoms of industrialism and our culture rather than the causes of illness. It does not cover treatment of non-EU citizens unless they’re in the emergency room, by which time it costs a lot more and the patient is more likely to suffer such trifling consequences as death. But these criticisms are largely true of the American model as well. The main problems that face the oldest nationalized health care system in the world are a result of the fact that for the last 15 years, both major parties have encouraged its partial privatization.

They knew that if they privatized out in the open, they would be immediately ejected from office. So they devised a deliberately complicated scheme where private companies build public infrastructure (not just for health care), then the state rents it back over many years. The consortiums that have built these projects have offered terrible value for money, by spinning out negotiations, cutting corners in construction, and demanding that in order to make payments public bodies charge for previously free services and cut other expenses. In the case of hospitals, that means doctors, nurses and beds.

If this is socialism, it’s no wonder Obama gets called a follower when his definition of wealthy starts at a quarter of a million dollars a year. Britain shows that you can still have a beloved and absurd economic system that includes something resembling universal health care. But mainstream America seems to bark at even the most pathetic façade of a move from its self-imposed, slimline range of options. 47 years after Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from Birmingham jail, the US is still creeping forward on equality at horse-and-buggy pace.

It’s also arguable that this narrow view of the political spectrum, in which the business community must be satisfied in every scenario, has threatened everybody in the world. Had the American media – the sector that my teacher fears will next be taken over by a small group of power-hungry tyrants – not spent much of last year peddling idiotic disinformation about health care reform, the issue could have been finished with months ago. This would have left more room for Obama to deal with the other main issue of his young presidency, climate change. He was the only person in the world who could have changed the course of the failed Copenhagen summit in December, by again taking on the corporations. In reality, there was no time to figure out how to make “change,” and Obama was left with the routine Presidential role of sabotaging the talks. No health care system in the world is fully capable of protecting its citizens from the collapse of the biosphere.

The hilarious and upsetting thing about this is that it took place in an ethics class. Even my ethics textbook tells me that one of the good things about egoism (the theory that says we should always pursue self-interest) is that it is “the fuel of commerce and capitalism.” A class intended to help us make the right decisions in life doesn’t even question whether the dominant economic system on the planet is a good thing. It seems to me that if this is the level of “critical thinking” on offer, making ethics a required course is a waste of time

Gary Gellatly is an activist and writer from the UK. He enjoys beer and indie music. Read other articles by Gary.