The My Factor

Listening to the harangue over the health care reform squabble, I can’t help thinking—even I saw a few episodes of West Wing, I who do not watch television, so of all the  Lefties out there who probably hung on every second of that show, why is it so hard to grasp how things don’t get accomplished in D.C. ?  Yeah, it was fiction, but it was, in my opinion, pretty accurate in terms of the culture.

But people complain and wonder why Obama doesn’t just “ram his reforms through.”

Well.  The man is a consensus builder.  We just got done with a president who wasn’t.  Obama has not yet been in office a year and already people are ready to jump ship because he’s not the second coming of FDR.

How thoughtless, ill-informed, and shallow supposedly intelligent people can be.  It should not be surprising, yet…

First off, instead of presenting his reform package, he handed it to Congress—which is where all the arguing was going to happen anyway.  Suppose he had presented a package.  What is happening now would have happened anyway, and then he would be directly blamed for having drafted a lame plan.  His plan would have been eviscerated and Congress would then proceed to draft something possibly worse than what is emerging now since Obama’s plan would have been discredited through failure.   As it is, the plan being touted is All Congress’s.  Anything wrong with it, it’s on them.   Obama has been arguing that regardless what happens, things have to change—which is frightening to many people.  With the stimulus package, things were already broken.  With health care they are merely on the verge.

Secondly, he’s got lots of balls in the air just now.  A lot.  Most of them are disasters he inherited.

Now, the metaphor has been used before, but that doesn’t make it any less true—this country is a Big Ship and you don’t turn it around on a dime.  If you do that, you break more than you fix.  Maybe that’s what needs to happen, and sometimes we’ve had leaders who did that when there was but one maybe two major things that needed to be tended to.  But that’s not the case just now.

Everything is in a mess.

I’m not going to fault the man for failing to meet impossible expectations.   Let’s assume he did just start “ramming things through” and taking a dump all over Congress in the process, and things would inevitably get worse.  For the ideologues who are displeased with what they perceive as half-measures just now, he might be a hero.  Maybe, but quite certainly he would be a one-term hero.  The Republicans could make good book on a spectacular failure and be right back in power, at least in Congress, and then what?

So I think it a stupid thing to start bailing on him this soon into his term when he is possibly the most unifying, certainly the most intelligent and well educated president we’ve had since…hm.

Here’s what’s likely going to happen.  Congress will put together a lame package.  It will pass.  Then likely as not it will fail.  The system will collapse.  On its own.

Then the big fix will come in.  Congress will be discredited and Obama will be able to present a plan with legs and the  public will back it because they will already have seen what happens when the really necessary steps are not taken.

Right now, the reality is that health care costs too damn much.  The public option was designed to force the industry to charge less.  The way it’s set up, they can’t.  Too many people making too much buck are too dependent on it.  When that system breaks down, then you can fix it.  As long as it is seen to work by those who can afford to hire lobbyists, it will remain in place.

And it’s true, Obama doesn’t have a way to pay for it.  He’s playing a dangerous game right now.  He’s banking on you and me and the next door neighbor fomenting rebellion.  He’s hoping we unilaterally strike (as in labor strike, just so my meaning is clear) and tell the insurance industry that enough is enough.  That we’re not prepared to allow them to hike our premiums whenever we have medical needs or cancel us if we really get sick.  The fact is, the insurance industry is a business, it is designed to make profit, and if it can do that by taking care of people, it will—but if it can’t, then it won’t help anyone it can figure out how cut out.  The basic principles need to shift, but that won’t happen in a system built on conflicting benefits.

It’s ironic, you know, that people are terrified of a government bureaucrat dictating health benefits, but they don’t have the same reaction when a corporate bureaucrat does the same damn thing—-or have we all forgotten HMOs?

It’s not so hard to understand, though.  It’s a mindset and it is basic to the American psyche.

Here’s the mindset that has to be overcome.  “Keep the government out of my medicare.”  I heard that actually said.  Oxymoronic, yeah?  But it expresses a bone-deep sentiment that is fundamental to the American psyche and it is expressed by one word in that phrase—My.

Reality aside, people do not view government services as “theirs”.  They pay their taxes, in this view, to benefit Other People.  Not them.  Yes, yes, I know, it’s ludicrous, but tell me it isn’t true?  The public option would be seen as Not Ours.  If it goes through the government it passes out of private hands—my hands—and becomes something that no longer belongs to me.  Private insurance, private health care, bad as it may be, is Mine.  That’s the key word, that’s the core of the fear.

Tally the complaints we hear daily, often as a joke, about dealing with City Hall.  The Department of Motor Vehicles is a case in point.  Complaint after complaint.  Not all of it invalid, but far far more than is warranted.  Get someone, anyone, over fifty-five talking about vehicle inspections and the more recent emissions tests, and you can get a visceral reaction all to the negative.  People do not see the government as Theirs.  It is an institution with which they must deal, but it is a nuisance, a thing that gets in the way, a burden, an obstacle, not like the local retail store or the private contractor.

Further, though, that resounding My goes to the heart of another sensitive issue in American culture that is connected to merit.  Because, so this reasoning goes, when you support something through the government, when you pay taxes for it, people who don’t deserve it will get it.  You lose all control.  And then you get the same level of attention as “those people over there” who don’t work.

That most of us do not fall into anything like that category, and government programs are pathologically geared to preventing the so-called undeserving from getting anything they shouldn’t have matters not at all.  I will not argue the perversity of the mindset, but that’s where it lies.  Single payer, to take it further, means it is no longer Yours.  Your money goes out the door to the government and is diffused through a population of folks, many of whom you don’t want to pay for.  Never mind that improvement in general public health redounds to all our benefit.  Never mind that dealing with poverty-related disease protects us all.  Never mind that decent health care is fundamental to beginning the eradication of the cycle of poverty.  Never mind that so much would cost much less in the long run.  The question in the average mind is, “Why should I be made to pay for someone else’s health care?”

Now, it doesn’t matter that basically this is the way insurance works now.  We’re talking psychology here, not reason.  The fact is, you can cancel your insurance if you don’t like how it’s operating—stupid maybe, but it’s the illusion of control, the fiction of private property.

And just now, we are still living under the aegis of Reagan-speak, which cast the government as the Other, the Alien, the Tyrant.

It’s a form of classism.  Never mind that it might work better.  The sad fact is, it will work for people many of us may feel don’t deserve it.  And that is part of what America is all about.  Ownership, control of personal destiny, the ability to deny on the basis of merit.  It’s the dark side of the very system that has also provided a great deal of good to a great many people.  It’s a holdover from the age of self-reliance and is reinforced through our romantic connection to Manifest Destiny and the City on the Hill, the latter image most recently invoked by Reagan and referred to obliquely by George W. Bush.  Only the Elect may live there, and that doesn’t include those who can’t (or, in this characterization, won’t) support themselves.

The fact is, we haven’t found a way to effectively argue with this.  Two reasons—it is largely unstated, and it’s hard to debate something that is not even cogently recognized; and when it is challenged, the challenger sounds like a Socialist.

Remember.  It’s all about the My.

Published by Mark Tiedemann