Not Robin Hood. Not Lionhearted. Just Wise.

“If you believe that it is absolutely moral to take my money and give it to someone else based on their supposed needs, then you come and take this $20 and use it as a down payment on this health care plan.” — Keli Carender.

I don’t think she could possibly mean this.  Keli Carender is lately acknowledged as an originator of the Tea Party movement.  I imagine her standing there with her $20 bill, and then I imagine a sick child who needs a $20 antibiotic prescription to live, and it seems clear to me that taking $20 from her to save someone’s life is exactly the right thing to do.  Not law-abiding, but moral.  As for the “supposed” needs of the American people for health care, I’m not sure if she is the only person alive who thinks our health care system is working fine, or she thinks people are giving themselves leukemia as a prank, or what.

In all seriousness, my argument for government intervention in health care is never about morality.  I think it is a moral issue.  But who cares what I think?  My real argument is that it directly and powerfully improves your life when your neighbors’ lives are improved.

If you have been to a developing country, let’s say Mexico because that’s the one I’ve been to, you see what happens when wealth is distributed unevenly.  People with money have to live behind barbed wire and hire bodyguards.  Whole sections of your city are built out of cardboard boxes.  Doesn’t that sound ugly and scary, all morality aside?  These are the kinds of problems that result from uneven distribution of wealth and people going without things they need, like health care.  This isn’t to say that Mexico hasn’t got other problems (God bless them they got some gorgeous stuff too), or that a lack of health care will turn us into a third-world country.  But it is holding us back, big time, keeping us from competing with countries that have populations healthier and more secure than ours.  If you want to live in a more prosperous, safe country, you gotta share.

Carender, and other people on the right, often seem to be implying that some Americans are leeches: taking her money when they’re not the ones who worked for it. I don’t think it’s those so-called “welfare moms” or these mythical poor and lazy folks who are the leeches.  I’ve known a lot more poor people who are busting their asses to keep their families together.

I think the leeches are the people who benefit from the military fighting in the Middle East to ensure your supply of oil, the NIH studying flu viruses and developing vaccines, OSHA keeping their workplace safe, and the Department of Labor limiting their work hours to a manageable level.  The people who drive over federally funded bridges and interstates and accept federal student grants, and then claim the federal government is unresponsive and worthless, and say they don’t want to contribute to it, in fact, say they want to take it apart and return us to some kind of backward Articles of Confederation when we agreed in 1789 that that was a dumb idea.

If you are a part of our society, what we do is take care of our own.  We don’t give people an ethics test before we allow them to get Medicaid.  We don’t sell cheap gasoline to people who have worked hard enough to earn it.  We share resources, we share the bounty, and we share expenses.  That’s what it means to live in a society, rather than on a desert island.

We try to equalize opportunity in the United States not to be nice, or moral.  We do it because we know that the world is capricious. The next great researcher or business genius or musician could be born anywhere, in any neighborhood.  Without offering everyone good schools and good health care, we might lose that kid before s/he grows up.  The cure for cancer gets shot in a drive-by.  The next Warren Buffett lets his cancer spread before he can really get going because he doesn’t have health insurance.  He’s an entrepreneur, after all.  This is why we give them your $20.  Just in case.  Just in case.  You don’t want to miss one of those people.  That’s what we can’t afford.

Teachers and Undertakers

I was not invited to the economic meltdown.  I went to work in a field with little prospect for financial advancement and infinite job security.  (Teachers and undertakers remained solvent during the Great Depression.  I’m the former.) 

Even worse: I didn’t invest.  My only retirement savings has been through the state pension fund.  I own my car, and I rent my apartment. 

I’m not throwing this out to brag.  It’s just strange that in the eyes of the world, I’ve gone from silly to sagely stable in the last year.

The other strange thing about this economic crisis is that suddenly being poor seems worthy of compassion.  I’ve been working with poor people for about eight years.  During that time, Oprah has gone from interviewing families who make $100 grand a year and still bury themselves in credit card debt to spotlighting tent cities.

Not so very long ago, the only relief I found from a relentless march of sloppy consumerism was a “Roseanne” rerun, where a character would sometimes dare to say, “We can’t afford it.” 

Since Americans believe so passionately in individual opportunity, they can easily fall into an old-fashioned idea of poverty.  Before modern times, most people believed the poor were lazy or stupid or immoral.  They deserved to be more physically uncomfortable and emotionally drained than the rest of us.

But when jobs fall away and credit dries up, we have to admit that this cannot be the case.  Suddenly everyone is too close to poverty to associate it with laziness, stupidity, or immorality.  And if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we are one serious illness away from bankruptcy, health insurance or no.

Back to Oprah’s homelessness show: what shocked me most about the feature was that many people living in the tent city said they had family they could be living with, but they were too ashamed to ask for help.  I have a huge family.  I imagine that I am at least 30 couches and basements away from being homeless.  I hope I wouldn’t be so wedded to my individualism and pride that I wouldn’t sleep on a perfectly good couch.  But I don’t know.

One of my friends recently insisted that we had to change our safety net.  This every-man-for-himself thing, she said, has to stop.  We have to become more like the Europeans.  Individual fates are too fragile, and families are too fractured, to make our society stable. 

She insisted we need the government to step in more often, and more reliably.  This is not about emotional concern for the poor.  It’s about building stable social structures, which benefits the rich as much as the poor.

Although I’m firmly on the left, I still find these idea a little strange.  What would that be like?  What would it be like to know that your access to health care was not dependent on your job or (bizzare as it is) your health?  What would it be like to know that your retirement was not dependent on the stock market? 

What if the government prevented loans from being given to people who clearly can’t afford to pay them back?  What if the government stopped big corporations from becoming so powerful we had to “save” them to save ourselves?  Could we make that happen?  I guess we’re about to find out.

Today’s Good News

We need good news at the beginning of January.

Several items today in New York Times pleased me.  First of all, I smiled at the article describing the ad campaign put up by atheists in Britain.  I have a soft spot for atheists.  It’s a very reasonable position, often taken up by smart, sensitive people who just can’t swallow that any God would let the shit go down that goes down.  I admire that, although I usually believe in God.  The ad, featured on London’s city busses, says, ” There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  Which also made me smile.  It really makes no sense.  Whether or not you believe in God, you could worry like crazy.  Worry that if there is no God, you are totally responsible for making the best of things.  Worry that if there is a God, you can’t figure God out.  And if there is no God, that doesn’t naturally lead to enjoying life.  Maybe the thought of no God is so depressing that you can’t enjoy anything.  Regardless, I love that atheists are getting their message out there.  Especially British atheists.  All those Europeans think Americans are nutty for being religious.  God bless them.

Also, hey, we can copy our iTunes.  I believe in paying for music, and I faithfully and regularly pay for music, but I was always annoyed that iTunes kept me on such a short leash.

Finally, some guy wants to open a “civilian service academy,” where you “pay” in five years of community service.  I don’t know who works for the government, but I do know that lots of us here at my urban public high school had to bury ourselves in outrageous debt in order to teach.  It’s one thing to sacrifice salary for public service.  When you have to pay back student loans on that salary, it’s an additional burden, and it keeps a lot of people from working in urban schools, as public defenders, or in other low-paid government position.  It hasn’t always been this way– people in my parents’ generation didn’t take on this kind of college debt.  That’s another complaint about lack of state funding for education…. And I mean this as good news.  Maybe his civilian academy won’t work, but it seems like it might be worth a try.