The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Hypocrisy and Health Care

Toward a list of ingredients for stew

By Louis Black, July 3, 2009, Columns

If You Say It, Then It Is True; If Repeated, It's Believed

Regularly watching cable news commentary finds me shaking my head, feeling as though I'm trapped in some giant Alice in Wonderland burlesque, in which rhetoric and politics are unrelated to reality. Commentators on both the left and the right now seem to view political discussion as a contact sport, void of ideas and meaning: The goal is to dominate the conversation by speed-talking, without pausing for a single breath. In this context, opinion and attitude are presented as facts.

Some Republicans have decided that the economic crisis is entirely the fault of the Obama administration. They bemoan the outrageous spending that will end up on our children's and grandchildren's tab; that this spending is aimed at economic recovery is largely ignored, referenced only when the speaker is wondering why the economy did not immediately right itself. Maintaining this indignation over wasteful spending requires ignoring the fact that the previous administration was already dipping into the very same pockets. Rather than aiding the economy, however, that administration's bloated budgets were so inequitably targeted to benefit specific groups that the consequences were systemic financial failure and overall economic collapse. But to those not looking backward, the past is the past, while the present is very much only what they say it is.

The Principled and the Partisan

To believe in a standard of conduct that is absolute is to embrace a principle. The acceptance of such means one tries faithfully to apply that principle, regardless of surrounding circumstances. To take a partisan position is to bend and shape such a code to fit differing situations as best serves one's beliefs. A "principled position" must be independent of the ideology and specifics of a situation. When the way it is considered is instead dependent on those things, then it is just partisan politics.

Freedom of speech is a critical ingredient of an open, democratic society. I'm not citing the Bill of Rights here because all the First Amendment does is guarantee that the government won't abridge speech. Nor am I going to the other extreme, wherein anyone denied access to expressing views through any medium is being censored. There is no secular, constitutional, or spiritual guarantee that one has an inalienable right to have his or her message heard.

When it comes to freedom of speech, however, all too often people defend their own rights – as well as the ones of those who are like-minded – but fail to protect vigilantly those with differing views. True defense of freedom of speech begins with defending the rights of those with whom one most violently disagrees and the speech that is the most offensive and despicable to one personally.

Right-wing pundits often attack the ACLU for being an anti-American, subversive organization, decrying the organization's aggressive defense of constitutional principles because often it is performed in support of unpopular causes or groups that are widely detested. Protecting the rights of extremists, controversial ideas, and even reprehensible individuals is not just crucial but absolutely the most important strategy for protecting all our rights. When the Nazis wanted to march in Skokie, Ill., in 1977, given the number of concentration camp survivors who lived there, my gut reaction was violent opposition. The Constitution does not serve personal emotion, however, but justice, fairness, and rationality. If, due to the taking of extreme ideological positions, the rights to assemble and to freedom of speech were disallowed, then the precedent set is too dangerous to really comprehend.

Going to court to guard the constitutional rights of supremacists and pornographers seems reprehensible and indefensible. Except it is not defending or supporting what they do; it is privileging the freedoms and rights enumerated in the Constitution to all of us – over all other considerations. Still, rather than applauding the valiant, if often morally difficult, constitutional defenses being offered, ACLU critics instead see those actions as an assault on the country and on civilization. It is hard to tell if this is from a conscious or unconscious disregard of the breadth of those very principles and the necessity to defend them, especially when at their most controversial.

Casual Expertise: The Ease of Achieving Knowledge

Universal access to the Internet has radically changed how information is accessed and disbursed. Now it is relatively easy to find sources to validate one's already-held opinions. Thus, authority has become a function of belief, while individual expertise is self-determined – and neither is based any longer on the extent of schooling or training.

Although the ongoing mortgage crisis is such a mess as to seem relatively incomprehensible to the uneducated outsider, there has proven to be a large swath of experts among the general population who readily understand it. Evidently finding complex financial transactions as simple to understand as any basic first-grade reader, they will assure you that the blame lies almost solely with Rep. Barney Frank.

The 9/11 conspiracy theorists evidently found it relatively easy to learn rapidly the properties of steel, the effects of heat, and the full range of structural engineering. Understanding building design, knowing the science of structural support, and grasping the dynamics of the high-rise required little more than basic study and reading a number of supportive texts – forget advanced degrees or actual experience.

Those Americans who hate their own government above all else find it relatively simple to identify the duplicity, manipulative irresponsibility, illegal methods, and immoral abuses of power committed by the government. Despite the inherently clandestine nature of such operations, discerning them is as easy as reading a comic book for these critics. Many start from the sophisticated premise that the United States is always wrong and any nation or group in opposition to the U.S. is either right or else simply a U.S. front. One need not travel to the Middle East to know that al Qaeda is a CIA invention nor go to Iran to know that it is our government behind the current massive anti-government protests.

Sophisticated Expertise and Unenlightened Self-Interest

Currently, many Americans seem to be fretting about this country turning socialist, as though it has long had a purely capitalist, free-market economy – no one really wants that, and it certainly isn't what has existed for decades, if not centuries. A legislatively influenced market and regulated businesses came about not through some conspiratorial coup but through legitimate concerns for the health and well-being of the economy, work force, and population. Evidently, however, according to some, paying for unneeded weapon systems in order to keep workers employed isn't socialism but worrying about the social safety net is.

Overall, the game at hand is partisan politics. On the right, talking points seemingly materialize and are faithfully repeated on a daily basis. The left has just as many mindless mantras, but the difference is timeliness. The Republicans can change direction and opinion on a dime; the Democrats can't change direction, given a vast expanse carpeted in $100 bills totaling the national debt. In the case of the former, just note how those who once accused Americans who disputed national elections and criticized government actions of being traitors now laud those doing the same in Iran.

The debate over health care has so many voices coming from such a variety of different directions that figuring it all out isn't easy. Those in Congress, whether they support health-care reform or oppose it, all have federally funded, extensive, and comprehensive health care. Yet the United States is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere lacking any kind of national health care.

Significant numbers of those who support health-care reform have no idea what kinds of plans are viable and actually being considered. Many of those who most vehemently oppose it feel that the issue is simply a Trojan horse designed to sneak further government control past alert sentries.

Many with superior health insurance or who are young enough to feel invulnerable feel this is much ado about nothing. Others focus solely on those currently uninsured, as though the problem is that limited.

As a member of the management team of two businesses that both pay 100% of full-time employees' health insurance, I am aware of and involved with this issue. Unlike many of the savants on all the differing sides, on a monthly basis I'm reminded of the increasing expenses and shrinking benefits. Consequently, I'm flummoxed by the argument that a free-market solution will see competition driving down costs while improving the quality of care.

The current state of health-care plans is more than troubling. In my experience, one rarely settles into a long-term relationship with an insurer. Instead, something like the following scenario occurs: In year one, a contract is signed for a new plan to serve the staff. The second year, the rates go up significantly but not outrageously. The third year, the company often offers two different rate plans, with the rates of both increasing by absurd percentages. The less expensive plan often eliminates an area where coverage has traditionally been provided. The rate for the cheaper, less comprehensive option usually ends up increasing by a medium/high single-digit percentage, while keeping the same coverage incurs a double-digit increase, the higher rate indicating that the company is trying to steer you away from continuing your current coverage. Currently, we are seeing this in terms of the amount of aftercare that is covered by insurance. It used to be generous, if not unlimited. Now it is being substantially cut back.

Each year, we not only pay more, but the plan offers our employees less coverage and higher co-payments. Major businesses are suffering not from substantial worker salaries but from health-care costs that are both unexpectedly higher and much longer-lasting than anticipated. Something should be done not to advance socialism or benefit employers, but for the good of the overall population.  

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