I got an e-mail yesterday afternoon from a friend of mine who worked on my 2004 campaign for U.S. vice president. He was pretty disheartened with the way things have been going the last four years and asked if I could explain the stock market crisis and what's happening in the world - because after years of activism and giving a damn - he feels like giving up.
He's a proponent of single payer universal health care but has long faced the philosophical stumbling block of people calling it "socialized medicine." He knows that this is not what he's after, that industries aren't socialized just because the government buys product or services from them. The defense industry, for example, is paid for by the government but not owned by it. Something gets socialized when the government takes ownership.
In a single payer health care system, a doctor submits a bill and the feds pay it - similar to Medicare. It's only socialized medicine if the government owns the delivery system and the doctors are federal employees - like the Veterans Administration.
But my friend is upset because he has worked for universal health care and his ideas have been ridiculed as fringe or antibusiness, or even anti-American. But now the government is taking ownership of the banks - and nobody's outraged by socialized banking.
Well, maybe the Washington Post is.
Yesterday's headline read, "U.S. forces nine major banks to accept partial nationalization." Yesterday's story goes on to say, "In pressing the bank executives to accept partial government ownership, [Treasury Secretary] Paulson's message was clear: Though officially the program was voluntary, the banks had little choice in the matter." The banks can submit to government takeover or go under - and considering the way the stock market rallied - it appears to be their national duty to acquiesce.
So why can't we do the same for our antiquated health care financing system? According to Health Affairs, a public policy think tank devoted to analysis of public policy on health care, more than 75 percent of health care-related bankruptcies happened to Americans who had health insurance at the time they became ill. Why not close this gaping hole in the U.S. economic fabric? There's just no good answer to that question and consequently I didn't have a thing I could tell my friend to help him justify his life's work against the inconsistency of U.S. politics.
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Still, I felt bad about his level of despair as he struggled to come to terms with living in a democracy that was increasingly undemocratic, as the government forced compliance on our financial institutions.
The Washington Post story went on to explain that banks reluctant to become nationalized were exposed to a sort of peer pressure as Treasury Secretary "Paulson told them the moves would shore up confidence in their own institutions, spark lending throughout the system and send a message to smaller institutions that there is no stigma in accepting federal funding." Yeah, get those smaller institutions to go along by showing that the giants aren't afraid of government ownership. Of course, when faced with a world economy crashing so loudly even the poor can hear it, they had to go along, "Though some were reluctant, all of the executives complied."
Secretary Paulson wants to set the example that there's "no stigma in accepting federal funding." My friend who contacted me wants to know when the government will tell us that about health care. When will we accept federal funding without stigma to save human lives?
It's as simple as this. Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch died a few weeks ago. Our government, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve don't want any more of these financial institutions to fail. So something had to be done, even if it meant shelving capitalism and adopting a socialized form of banking.
According to USA Today, "18,314 people die in the USA each year because they lack preventive services, a timely diagnosis or appropriate care." And about 1,400 of them die because they don't have treatment for their high blood pressure - a condition that doctors treat in less time than it takes Secretary Paulson to twist a Wall Street banker's arm or convince Congress to approve government ownership.
Maybe you can tell my friend when we'll find human life as valuable as Wall Street.