Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Standing on Shoulders

This story made me ... angry.

But not as angry as this one.

I can't believe we live in by far the richest country in the history of the world and there is any question at all about providing health care for people who need it. The idea that basic dental care is out of reach in America is just mind-boggling.

In case you didn't follow the first link, it was a story about a massive weekend-long free dental clinic that serves the people of Appalachia. Dentists from all over the region donate their time, set up a tent, and start pulling rotten teeth. In one weekend, they'll pull more than 2,000 teeth from people who can't afford any sort of dentistry. I think it's a great thing those dentists are doing, but one little detail jumped out at me. A couple is quoted in the story saying they grew up with excellent dental care ... their fathers were union miners, and the mining company provided full benefits. Those days are long gone.

The second story takes place in a Democratic representative's town hall meeting. He was challenged by an angry constituent who demanded to know if he thought that health care was a right. He made the mistake of saying yes. She lambasted him, the crowd cheered, and now the video has gone viral throughout the conservative Internet. The woman who denounced any sort of public health care has become a hero.

I don't get this on any level. I know I'm ranting, and I know this has nothing to do with writing, but sometimes I just can't believe what's going on. I strongly believe that you can tell what kind of society you're dealing with by how it treats the least among them. The rich aren't a measure of a country. Rather, it's how the rich treat the poor. The same is true of families, by the way. You can tell almost immediately what kind of person you're dealing with by how they treat their children.

In my book, this means the United States is measured by how we treat our criminals, our poor people and sick people, and kids. And I think we do a piss-poor job of it. Of course health care is a right. Whether you want to call it "providing for the general welfare" or the "pursuit of life," I think there's little question that an advanced, rich society should first see to its own health. It should make sure its people were able to meet a basic level of health. It shouldn't allow an epidemic of prison rape. It shouldn't allow mentally disabled people to live on the streets.

I get the conservative argument. I grew up a Young Reagan Republican, and I still read more right-wing media than I do left-wing media. When I argue with conservatives, I'm not really bragging to say that I often know their own arguments better than they do. But ultimately it comes down to a question of social justice for me, and I think anyone would be hard put to prove a link between providing social justice and the vibrancy of American business and innovation. In fact, the stronger the safety net has become, the greater our country has been. Being a good corporate citizen is not a competitive disadvantage. But being a bad one is ... just ask any Enron shareholders.

When I look at conservative thought, I'll be honest: I see mostly fear. I see a mindset that is consumed with the fear of loss. Loss of middle-class status; loss of economic well-being; loss of prestige; loss of national position; loss of security. This overwhelming fear threads through every argument—any measure is valid as long as it protects from this dreaded, panicky, ill-defined loss.

I get it. I'm worried too. I'll never have the kind of job my dad had. I might never have that kind of financial security or lifestyle, and I certainly won't enjoy those kinds of benefits. I don't know what kind of job market my kids will face. For that matter, I don't know what kind of job market I'll face in six months or a year. I don't know if China will grow beyond us (ironic, for a Communist country). I don't know if someone will figure out how to pack a nuclear bomb into a suitcase. But I never want to be crippled by this fear of not knowing. I can only hope that this fear will never eclipse my humanity so one day I'll find myself justifying why it's OK to sacrifice people who are less fortunate than me as long as I can stand on their shoulders.


Natasha Fondren said...

Dental care is expensive here, especially when you get older. I'm getting my passport, mostly so I can drive to Mexico and get affordable dental care. Even at half-price in Mexico, it's expensive, but that's because those clinics are geared toward United States citizens. I'm hoping if I go to a small village I can get a better deal.

I order my asthma meds, ($400+ a month here) from a pharmacy in India ($200 a month).

Is that not a bit insane?!

I'm not one to shy away from political statements on my blog, but I've been completely unable to talk about it. I think it's hard to speak up about health and dental care. It's hard to debate with someone who's essentially telling you, "You don't deserve to live."

Mark Terry said...

I saw Stark give a talk to the clinical lab industry a couple years ago. This is a very, very smart guy when it comes to healthcare in the U.S. He's behind what are known as the Stark laws, which, although fairly complicated legally, are to prevent physicians from providing referrals to their own services--in other words, if a doctor owns a laboratory or some other type of ancillary, Stark helped write guidelines that prevent doctors from double-dipping in terms of Medicare. It's complicated stuff, but he's looking out for patients.

I suspect that woman in the article is similar to the woman who at one of the healthcare reform town hall meetings got up and yelled that she didn't want the government meddling with her Medicare! Duh, Medicare is a government program. In fact, Stark--and I pretty much agreed with him at the time--argued a couple years ago that we already had the infrastructure for a national healthcare system, that it was called Medicare and Medicaid, and they could provide it to everyone by just gradually expanding the age of people allowed, and in 20 or 30 years everyone would be covered. It would be gradual enough that payment and tax increases, etc., could be melded in, etc. But people are nuts and they base so much of what they scream about on the basis of their ignorance that it's positively chilling.

Natasha Fondren said...

So true about ignorance, Mark. When I do talk about healthcare, people raise two issues:

1) They're in good health, so they don't want to be subsidizing those with poorer health. And how is that different from health insurance now?!
2) They refuse to fund abortions, even for medical reasons. And do they even know the policy of their current health insurance provider?

Jon VanZile said...


I know what you mean. I've gotten in the habit of trying to avoid these conversations, but it doesn't always work. I can be argumentative, and sometimes just for the sake of it. But I also believe this strongly and I often have a hard time understanding what the "other viewpoint" is.

Jon VanZile said...


I know what you mean ... I'm sometimes stumped by flat-out ignorance. When people talk about evil government-run healthcare, but then use Medicare, it boggles the mind. Or when people start talking about how they "know" the healthcare plan with do this, that or whatever, using dubious statistics that are based on faulty comparisons. It would take too long to explain it sometimes, so you don't bother.

The thing that really burns me, though, is that these things are often planted in the media narrative by cynical and partisan media sources who know exactly what they're doing. I've seen it happen over and over ... some meme will appear on a far-right blog, then go into the "respectable" right-wing press, then Fox news, then next thing you know, it'll be in the Washington Post and NYT. It's incredible how a storyline can be created.

Kath Calarco said...

The woman at Stark's meeting is the female version of Joe The Plumber - ill equipped for argument, but knows how to work a room filled with the same type of mentality.

And it's ignorance that feeds fear. People label health care reform as a step toward Socialism, yet I'm willing to guess its definition is lost on the conservative right.

Yes, it's easy to say "I'll live a healthy life, so I won't need no filthy health insurance," a statement I've heard spoken by the inept. Accidents happen, be it an drunk driver swerving in your path, or a silent killer such as ovarian cancer. Too bad there's no cure for the rapid spread of obtuse viewpoints in America. Very, very sad.

Well done piece, Jon. Brava, dude.

Melanie Avila said...

I agree with all of this. I'm very liberal and have moved into a very Republican area and I'm really struggling with it. I wouldn't mind so much, except my coworkers have this need to spout off at randomly about why health care is so stupid and how it won't fix anything, blah blah. I'm still new so I keep my mouth shut, but I want to drag these ignorant people to an area of town where people are struggling (because unemployment where I work is close to 20%) and tell them to explain their unfounded beliefs to THEM.


Jon VanZile said...


I know the feeling ... I live in a pretty mixed area, but I'd say I'm probably one of the most, if not the most, liberal member of my family. I try to avoid the whole topic, but sometimes I don't do such a good job.

Allen said...

First, I want to give an atta boy to my niece who participated in the dentist weekend as a technician. The doctors get the credit, but they are depending on the techs to carry them through.

Second, I understand the desire for universal health care and share that dream as well, but the Obama health care program is not the answer. Built by politicians who have no desire to build a system that will endure, the system is going to fail and leave our children to pay for the disaster.

The social security system, welfare system, and other programs just like Obama's health care system are fundamentally flawed and need overhauling. It is better to start with a good system first.

Reading through as much of the plan as I can get my hands on, this is a political elephant built to gain votes rather than fix the problem.

As a side note, the Obama plan would not benefit the people of Wise and Tazewell Counties at all. All the health insurance in the world is not going help an area that has no medical professionals.

The system we need should be structured to include all people, and be paid from the general funds, just like our military systems. Universal means everyone.

sorry, Jon. I just got a new soap box and had to try it out.

Jon VanZile said...


That's great for your niece!

I don't think the Obama plan is perfect either. I was actually against it for a while, but eventually I came to believe it was the best we were going to get, and it was a far sight better than the status quo. I don't agree that it will necessarily fail, either. I think it represents a start ... and by the way, it is paid from general funds, unlike Social Security which is a set-aside program.

Also, I don't think Social Security has failed at all, by any stretch. It has provided an income for literally millions of seniors, and the "demographic bubble" that will affect it still hasn't. Without a single change to the system, Social Security will be a viable, necessary program for decades. And when the time comes to change it, the changes are actually pretty simple: index the benefits.

Ultimately, I think it would be excellent to have an opportunity to start over from scratch and design a perfect system that covered everyone. But we can't do that now; there are too many entrenched interests with too much money; the politics would be too polarizing. Our very democratic system kind of makes that impossible. So for me, the question became simple: is the Obama healthcare plan an improvement over the system we currently have? And I think the answer is yes. For my family, it's 100% yes.

As for lack of medical professionals, I understand that's a major issue in certain specialties and in certain areas. But if people could actually pay for medical care, I'd be willing to bet you'd see more physicians opening up shop. We'll have to see.

And no apologies necessary! If people can't disagree, then what's a democracy about?