Obama, healthcare and the dreaded "S" word, revisited

Michael G. Brock

I was in what was at that time known as West Germany from the fall of 1966 until the spring of 1968, by virtue of which I was able to miss both the war in Vietnam and riots in Detroit. But what really impressed me about my tour of duty was that 22 years after Germany’s total defeat in WW II and with the country still under virtual occupation (technically, the status of forces agreement was in effect at that time, which made us the “guests” of the German government), the cities and German society had been completely rebuilt.

Both the duty and the beer were good. A draftee, I had been assigned to the NATO patrol in Kassel because I spoke more German than any of the other MPs in our patrol area. (This was a sad commentary on the willingness of Americans to immerse themselves in the culture and language of the other countries we took it upon ourselves to democratize.)    We are still constantly barraged by the media with what is bad about German ethnocentrism, but I remember even at that time admiring how they all thought of themselves as part of a society; a larger culture. There was a sense of all working together for the greater good.

We like to think of ourselves as proud Americans, loyal to our flag and our country, but we truly live in an economic free-for-all, where the few benefit at the expense of the many. At the end of the last big stock market crash and during the subsequent depression, the average American had learned something about the supposed wonderfulness of laissez faire capitalism; that what drives it is in fact pure greed in the cloak of free enterprise, and, of course, sporting the colors of the American flag. There were a lot of commies running around in those days and they made no bones about it; including most of the leaders of the labor movement. Because of their obtaining a living wage for factory workers a lot of average Americans were able to send their children to college and build a strong middle class.

Some politicians, most notably FDR, supported incorporating socialistic measures into the free enterprise system, in part because they thought it fair, and perhaps in part to fend off what they feared was an impending revolution. Whatever the motive, it worked. Along with the war, which promised major industrialists profits they had never before dreamed of, and the GI bill, which provided an ample supply of educated educators, professionals and business managers, this mix of capitalism and socialism spawned the most economically successful era in American history.

But we could not stand success on an ongoing basis, so the left moved further left and right moved further right. The left claims a monopoly on morality, but the right makes more money, so we have been moving further to the right and the left at the same time, if that is possible.

Possible or not, it is what has happened. The ever increasing number of people on government assistance is soaking up most of the dollars middle class workers have paid into social security over the course of my lifetime; and much of what has been invested in the market — which our government encouraged and assured was totally safe and regulated — has been stolen by fund managers who create what have become known as “bubbles” and pay themselves well whether they win or lose their clients’ money.

Historically, democracies are short lived phenomena. This is true for many reasons, I’m sure, but it seems that all eventually collapse under the weight of their own greed and the sloth produced by throwing crumbs to the disenfranchised. Moreover, the lust for power, markets and materials necessary to fuel continuous expansion makes military over-extension inevitable and success in war impossible. We can no more control Iraq and Afghanistan than the British could control America or India against an organized resistance.

We think we can afford these wars fueled by a president’s personal vendetta and the fear of “aggression” by a people whose major wish is to keep us from meddling in their culture and their politics. (It is certainly the case that we were meddling in Middle Eastern political affairs with disastrous results long before Bin Ladin and his fanatical followers attacked us.) But what the extreme right wing can’t afford, apparently, is good health care coverage for all Americans.

I don’t know of any health care providers who really believe that what we have is superior to the one payer systems of Canada and the European Democracies. The people who want it are the insurance companies who get rich by producing nothing; the middle men who merely sell health services for more than they pay for them. It is in their economic self-interest to provide the poorest possible service at the highest price the market will bear; the less service the higher the profit margin.
It is this quirk about modern capitalism that makes it even more destructive than that of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the so-called robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th century. A right wing friend of mine recently told me that Carnegie was right to earn those huge sums while paying his workers starvation wages because the country needed to have its infrastructure built and that was the only way to do it. This sounds like a massive rationalization to me; perhaps we would have been better off to build more slowly and to ensure that our growth was sustainable, instead of a few people becoming mega-rich and hiring criminals to kill any workers who protested for a living wage.

Be that as it may, Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford built something, produced something tangible, and had to put at least some of their resources to work, even if they had to be reined in by anti-trust laws to protect free enterprise in the long run. Therefore, manufacturers had some motivation to produce a competitive product, even if that motivation wasn’t sufficient to hold onto their markets for the long haul.

But bankers, investment brokers and insurance companies don’t make anything tangible, and as a result there is little incentive to produce a quality product or service, or even to clarify what it is they provide. What about competition, you say? Well who is going to compete over the right to insure people with pre-existing conditions, or those who have been cut lose by their previous insurance company because they were sick?

Insurance companies, investment bankers (AKA, the people who play roulette with your money), and stock brokers who sell investments for more than they pay for them — the nouveau riche of our society — are all people who produce nothing. While the producers of the goods and services they broker are asked to take less and less all the time for the labor, education and expertise they exhibit in providing real needs to society, the middlemen devise ever more devious ways of exploiting both the providers and receivers of these needed goods and services.

Recently, a truly remarkable thing happened; an extremely conservative Supreme Court chief justice threw in with the liberals on the bench to support the will of the American people as expressed by the election of the current president and congress. Why he did this is open to speculation, but the results will not only be better for, and result in more fairness and justice to the people of this country; it will also be better for business and taxpayers in the long run.

Whenever they are confronted with the fact that, by virtue of the tax codes, the super rich pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes than the middle class, conservatives respond by saying that 70 percent of the taxes are paid by 10 percent of the population. Presuming this is true, it only brings out just how top heavy our society truly is if the rich can pay a lower tax rate than the middle class and still pay most of the country’s taxes. The also like to point out that 40-50 percent of the population pays no taxes. This may also be true, but many of those are on disability, and the ranks of these people are burgeoning since welfare reform made social security disability the new welfare.

I know many people on this form of assistance and some of them would like to get off. One of my clients, a 51-year-old woman with a history of mental illness and multiple hospitalizations, has been stable for a number of years. She would like to get back into the workforce full time, but there is a strong disincentive for her to do so. First, she would immediately lose all of her $700 per month from the government the month she goes over $1,000 in earnings. She says that she could deal with that. It might be hard to pay her bills with the $1,200-$1,400 a month she could earn working full time, instead of the $1,700 she now has, but she would have the potential to earn more eventually. What really scares her most, however, is that she would automatically lose all of her healthcare benefits in seven years, when she turns 58 and is likely to start incurring physical health care expenses; to say nothing of what would happen if she had another psychiatric hospitalization.

For anyone currently on disability, the loss of healthcare has to be the biggest disincentive to even trying to get back into the workforce. But if they do go ahead and incur both the loss of their meager income and their healthcare benefits for the increased self-respect and self-esteem they gain by getting back into the workforce fulltime, they get an added bonus; the chance to pay much more for medical services than they would if they had any kind of insurance at all!

Everyone knows this is true; look at your own statements from your healthcare provider and insurer. I’m currently looking at the costs of a hernia operation I had in February of this year. The total charges were $17,782.40. The surgeon’s charges were $1,200, of which Medicare approved $566, or less than half, but as a participating provider he was required to accept it. The anesthesia bill was $1,000, of which Medicare approved $111.52, or a little more than a tenth of the bill. Should those who can’t afford insurance pay ten times more for health care services? How do you pay for a hernia operation (for which I was in the hospital less than 12 hours) if you make $30,000 a year? Forget about a major illness!

President Obama has been called a socialist for trying to provide basic healthcare needs for all our citizens, and for trying to rein in the excesses of Wall Street. The insurance industry and Wall Street are doing all they can to prevent his success in this endeavor. They do it by convincing all Americans, most of who benefit very little by free enterprise and not at all from laissez faire that, in the words of Milo Minderbinder (who contracted with the German’s in Joseph Heller’s classic WWII novel “Catch 22” to bomb his own troops), “We all have a share.”

Another way they do it is by stirring up our hatred and mistrust of each other, and even resorting to blatantly racial attacks upon the president himself by persons in high office, such as calling into question his citizenship, and what amounts to playing “the dozens.” I recently saw a woman on the O’Riley show on Fox News whose problem with Obama was that his parents were communists. This kind of disinformation goes beyond dirty politics into the realm of Joseph McCarthy-style pure evil.
But divide and conquer has always been a tactic of those who would control a larger group to serve the interests of an elite few; the British mastered the art while they were selling black slaves to the U.S., addicting the Chinese population to opium, and stirring up hatred between Muslims and other religions that eventually split India into three nations and sewed the seeds of ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Their own poor went unfed while they bragged that the sun never set on the British Empire.

In a PBS special about “The Ascent of Money” there was an interview with a hedge fund manager who paid himself a billion dollars a year. Does anyone really deserve a billion dollars for brokering the investments of hard working Americans who actually produce something? I think not. If it is socialistic to limit what brokers make in our culture so that people who work and pay for healthcare can have what a large group of our citizens have for free, then I’m all for socialism. In the end we might wind up with savings that will be there when we retire, and those of us who pay for healthcare might have something as good as what is provided to the disabled and elderly in this country-and to all the citizens of European Democracies-at no cost.
Michael G. Brock, MA, LLP, LMSW, is a forensic mental health professional in private practice at Counseling and Evaluation Services in Wyandotte, Michigan. He has worked in the mental health field since 1974, and has been in full-time private practice since 1985. The majority of his practice in recent years relates to driver license restoration and substance abuse evaluation. He may be contacted at Michael G. Brock, Counseling and Evaluation Services, 2514 Biddle, Wyandotte, 48192; (313) 802-0863, fax/phone (734) 692-1082; e-mail: michaelgbrock@ comcast.net.