The Story We’re Sticking To

As discussed in some detail earlier, Americans do argue over what constitutes The Commons – resources that are collectively owned, and thus owned by no one. And the process by which the commons are transformed into private property is called enclosure, a conflict in many an eighteenth or nineteenth century British novel. The idea is that forests, fisheries or grazing land are something we all share – so when the Sheriff of Nottingham tells Robin Hood he’s poaching, Robin Hood laughs in his face and we all smile. And out here the problem is surfing in Malibu. The good waves are owned by no one, but the rich Hollywood folks own access to the waves, expensive beachfront property with those amazing fifty-million-dollar homes, and that’s private property. As they say, you can’t get there from here. And the lawsuits never seem to end.

Of course the commons generally includes public goods – public space (even if sometimes not the access to it) and public education and the infrastructure that allows what we have going on here to function, like roads and electricity and water delivery and sewage systems. It’s just the basic stuff.

But it does get tricky. Most nations in the developed world consider their passenger rail system and their postal service resources that are collectively owned, and thus owned by no one, and everyone chips in with their taxes to keep them humming along – and they don’t have to turn a profit, because profit is not the point, the public service is. The train tickets and postage stamps could never cover the cost of the massive infrastructure, much less provide a profit. But who cares? It’s good to have these things.

We don’t think that way – consider it American Exceptionalism. We’re okay with roads and the highway system being collectively owned, and thus owned by no one in particular – and with some utilities like sewage systems, and with public schools and parks. In some places you might include mass transit – busses or a subway system or whatnot. These things don’t have to turn a profit. No one expects that – they just have to be run reasonably well, to justify what everyone is chipping in. But we decided passenger rail service isn’t like that – thus we came up with Amtrak, a government-chartered private corporation that is supposed to turn a profit and one day wean itself from government subsidies, and either consistently make a ton of money, and more and more each year, or just go away. And of course that’s just not working out. The same goes for the United States Postal Service. People are always bitching and moaning that these things just can’t turn a profit, so what good are they? The idea seems to be that all enterprises of man should be at least self-sustaining, with no help extorted from the public, if not immensely profitable all on their own, or they should perish. It’s a sort of Economic Darwinism – progress is when the weak perish and the strong survive, leading to a better world for all concerned, applied to anything that anyone decides is a good thing to do or a good service to provide. Let the free market decide what lives and dies. That’s fair. It’s better than letting any one person or political party or religious figure decide. It’s almost scientific.

Many feel this way about the public school system, from kindergarten through high school – privatize it, so parents have to pay and schools have to turn a profit, and as one Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, seemed to be proposing, get rid of set standards of anything and provide no funding, and let the new unregulated private schools compete with each other to see who can make the most money, providing what people are willing to pay for. Excellence would follow, at really low cost to anyone in the market for schooling, as there would be price wars and loss-leader offers and all the rest.

Of course those were the Reagan years and the message was consistent – privatize everything in sight, as private enterprise always does everything better than the government, because they have to, to turn a profit. If they don’t make big bucks they die, as they should. This insures amazing efficiency and stunning effectiveness at the lowest possible price. What’s not to like about that? The government doesn’t work that way. That must be the problem.

But except for privatizing a prison here and there, no one ever proposed privatizing any municipal, city or state police force – so they would have to make a ton of money on their own, on the their own dime, or turn in their badges. And no one until the Bush-Cheney administration proposed privatizing the military that protects us at home and acts in our geopolitical interest abroad. Their experiment with Blackwater and the rest didn’t go that well. Easing for-profit private armies in the mix wasn’t a good idea.

But we always knew that. No one is confronting Petraeus and McChrystal and saying, sure, you may be taking care of the sworn enemies of America in Iran and Afghanistan amazingly well – great job, guys – but when are you going to start turning a profit and stop asking American taxpayers to subsidize you?

The question never comes up. The Army isn’t Amtrak. But we still hold that all enterprises of man should be at least self-sustaining, with no help extorted from the public, and if not immensely profitable all on their own, they should perish. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it. And the French and Chinese ride their high-speed bullet trains and, if they bother to think about all this, smile sadly. Americans are like that.

But the key here is the basic premise that nothing should be extorted from the public, or confiscated for the greater good, unless we all agree to chip in – and why should we chip in? Except for the FDR years in the first half of the thirties, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society years – with Medicare and Medicaid and the rest – we almost never agree to chip in for much of anything. That’s how we think – freedom is getting to keep your own stuff. That’s what America is all about.

And we started that way, in Boston, long ago. No Taxation without Representation! Dump the tea in the harbor! No one saw any greater good in that Tea Tax.

That was our first big National No. And now we have the Tea Party movement with its one unifying message – no one can take my stuff, even my government funded and administered Medicare, oddly enough, without my consent, and I’m not giving it, and never will.

And you see what they’re getting at. It’s all about freedom, and if it seems crude and mean and selfish, it is given moral force by the concept of Personal Responsibility – people should take responsibility for themselves and not whine and complain that they’re victims of this and that and assume other people will bail them out when times are tough. Kids whine and expect to be bailed out. Adults take responsibility for themselves. The world would be better if we were all adults. Learn to take care of yourself. Grow up or die – no one is going to bail you out.

And every moral force needs its voice, a philosopher, or what passes for one, to provide the logical justification for why this is moral. And the Tea Party folks have that in Ayn Rand – with what she calls Objectiviism and her treatise on The Virtue of Selfishness and her promotion of ethical egoism.

The shorter version? Oh, grow up.

And that’s what the healthcare reform debate has always been about. And for that side of this, as Jonathan Chait notes in this recent column – “the Republican position on health care has increasingly come to be defined by a belief that the issue is a matter of personal responsibility.”

The core of this philosophical divide was on display in last week’s health care summit. Senator Tom Harkin, a traditional liberal, denounced policies that “allow segregation in America on the basis of your health.” Harkin’s point was that the only way to protect the sick is to pool them with the healthy. Conservatives seized upon Harkin’s remark. “Having people pay their own way,” mocked an incredulous Jeffrey Anderson, a former health care speechwriter in the Bush administration, “is apparently an injustice akin to segregating them by race or creed.”

“Pay their own way” – that gets to the heart of the party’s new vision of health as a consequence of personal morality. “I think a national health care act substitutes for a lack of personal responsibility,” complained Republican Representative Steve King last August. Newt Gingrich gloats that Americans have moved “away from the idea of government-run health care and toward more personal responsibility.”

And as things wind down to a final vote you find House minority leader John Boehner on television every hour or so explaining to one cable news host or another that the American people hate what is being proposed – they want to be left alone so they can do what they want about their health, without anyone, especially the government, butting in – riffing on Newt Gingrich. He says not one person anywhere in America, as far as he knows, is in favor of healthcare reform of any kind, and this is madness. Then he usually goes on to say that Obama is now the most unpopular American president in history, far more unpopular than George Bush was at Bush’s lowest point – because of this. And if they didn’t stop him there he’d probably go on to say McCain had far more votes in the last election and won all the states in the Electoral College and ACORN rigged the election – but they do stop him. But he’s just playing on the story we’re all sticking to – you make it on your own, or die. Yeah, life’s hard, but we all know that’s how life is – at least the adults and the Real Americans know that.

And Chait now points out this spirit was on display in “rawer and cruder form” at a recent rally pitting pro-reform and anti-reform protestors outside the office of Mary Jo Kilroy, undecided on how she will vote. Chait points to the video of what happened and offers this:

At one point, fifty seconds into the video, a pro-reform protester, whose sign indicates that he has Parkinson’s disease, approaches the opposing side. One anti-reform protester shouts:

If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong part of town. Nothing for free, you have to work for everything you get.

Another throws a dollar at him, and yells,

I’ll pay for this guy. Here you go. Start a pot. I’ll decide when to give you money. Here, here you go, here’s another one. Here you go.

A third protester can be heard yelling, “No handouts!”

Chait comments:

It’s a jarring video. But it also captures the heart of what animates the staunchest opposition to health care reform – a principled opposition to the idea the fortunate should be forced to subsidize the unfortunate. A person who has Parkinson’s, unless he is very affluent, is not going to be able to afford the cost of his own medical care. He is going to need to be subsidized by healthier or wealthier people – either by being lumped in with them in an employer-based insurance pool, or getting government-provided insurance like Medicaid, or government subsidies, or the enactment of regulations that force insurers to offer him insurance at a regular price (meaning healthy people would pay higher rates.)

Any way you slice it, somebody else is going to have to pay for his healthcare. But that’s the kind of redistribution the right increasingly cannot stomach.

Of course – see Idaho First to Sign Law Aimed at Health Care Plan:

Idaho took the lead in a growing, nationwide fight against health care overhaul Wednesday when its governor became the first to sign a measure requiring the state attorney general to sue the federal government if residents are forced to buy health insurance.

Similar legislation is pending in 37 other states.

Constitutional law experts say the movement is mostly symbolic because federal laws supersede those of the states.

But the state measures reflect a growing frustration with President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. The proposal would cover some 30 million uninsured people, end insurance practices such as denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, require almost all Americans to get coverage by law, and try to slow the cost of medical care nationwide.

Yep, it doesn’t work if there’s not a giant shared-risk pool. The idea is that everyone will be forced to buy health insurance, and given help paying for it if they can’t afford it, so that when any individual needs expensive care, the cost of that care is spread so widely that it’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a penny from everyone else – everyone chips in, but with everyone far and wide signing up and paying premiums, not one gets hurt that much. So the giant shared-risk pool is necessary.

And yes, federal laws supersede those of the states, so the suits will get nowhere. Or you could argue the states already force everyone to buy automobile insurance – it’s the law, and often a no-fault law where you use the pool to just fix the damned car no matter who did what. And states often force folks to buy fire and flood insurance and so on – and that’s not fair if you didn’t buy a home down on a flood plain, like some idiot, or up the combustible hills above Pasadena. And most states make motorcyclists wear a helmet – and those cost money and that’s not fair either. But this, they argue, is different. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

As for the Parkinson’s disease video, David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo just can’t manage to be surprised:

Those guys screaming about “handouts” would be perfectly at home at a rally in the 1990s, or the 80s, or the 70s and so on. This isn’t new, and it’s not original.

The social and cultural currents running through this debate exist independent of the debate, and the anger can’t be tempered or avoided by procedural fig leafs that few people inside Washington understand or by better messaging. At the end of the day, even abandoning reform won’t calm that kind of anger.

Yes, all this is independent of the debate – this has been going on since December 16, 1773 – Boston Harbor, our first National No. But back then we had a point. Now it’s just no.

And Digby adds this:

Remember how John Edwards used to say there were two Americas? This is the other one. And they are always pissed off when anybody else gets something they don’t have. Even if they don’t need or want it. You know the types.

But it is odd how they always say they’re the adults. But that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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