Dare I talk about politics?

(Originally posted in March, 2010)

US House of Representatives has passed the US Senate version of the healthcare reform bill, and the President has signed the bill into law.  If you are happy about it, I’m happy about it too!  If you are unhappy about it because it isn’t good enough — I don’t know if we ever get to a single-payer universal healthcare system (Medicare for all) in our lifetime, but it is a first decisive step toward the right direction.  Perhaps in the future, hopefully soon, we’ll get the coveted public option.  And if you are raged about the passage of the bill, it is you I’d really like to talk to.  I don’t know anyone from health insurance companies and I have no millionaire or billionaire acquaintances; you must be an ordinary American who thinks that the Federal government should not intervene in your liberty.  You love your country but doubt the authority, and believe in the small government.  Or, simply, you are misled and misinformed about this bill, and you may end up liking it if you knew what’s in the bill.

This post is not really about GOP vs. Dems.  This is about unfairness in our society that we as the people can, and should, no longer tolerate.  And I want us to think about where this unfairness is coming from and what we can do about it.

A Christmas Carol, a short story by Charles Dickens, was released in 1843 when the New Poor Law was passed by the British government.  The Industrial Revolution ended up forcing many people into poverty, and Dickens asked for people to recognize the plight of those, perhaps because he himself experienced the hardships they were going through.  Entrepreneurs and progressive businessmen made huge profits, but when the business as usual was no longer usual, the new urban society had a large number of the poor as a consequence.  Dickens talks about social obligation to help those in need, and through the story, he sends us the message of love and generosity.  Most people found this message beautiful, and the story was a huge success.

Just last year, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis adapted this story to a 3D CG-animated film.  And many people thought, including myself, that the release timing was pretty appropriate.  We were in a recession caused by, mostly, corporate greed and by the lack of regulations to make companies profit fairly.  Is it a coincidence?  I don’t know, but the story’s message was the right one for today’s America, I believe.

The richest 1% have more financial wealth than the bottom 95% combined in this country.  This is a shocking statement a liberal filmmaker made to criticize the American capitalism of today.  It is an overstatement, I thought, but according to the non-partisan fact-checking site PolitiFact.com, this claim is mostly true.  If he had said the richest 2%, the statement would have been true no matter how you read the numbers.  This tremendous gap between the rich and the rest of us is only possible because this country, the United States of America, protects individual “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as our inalienable rights, and it practices a free market economy based on that concept.  It is a beautiful thing that anyone can be successful, but when a seller took advantage of buyer’s need, that’s a different story.  And if a corporate did the same to vulnerable individuals, that is a social injustice.  The antitrust laws (i.e. the government) are there to protect consumers from being taken advantage of by companies.  But if there aren’t rules to protect the consumers, companies could exploit the consumers’ needs to get richer.  Not because they lack the morality, but because companies are for profit — their reason to exist is to make money, period.  Without help of the government as law, regulations or intervention, a corporate can take over individuals’ inalienable rights by exploiting their needs.

When a social injustice happens, who can stop it?  When a corporate takes advantage of you when you are in need of its product, who can protect you from its exploitation?  It’s the government.  However untrustworthy it seems for you, only the government can hit the brakes on the out-of-control corporate behavior.  Auto safety regulations are there to protect you.  Traffic laws are there to protect you.  No government is perfect, granted, but it is there to protect the law-abiding citizens.

Then what about the healthcare system?  The health insurance industry has been exempt from the antitrust laws.  They hiked the premiums to the amount some could no longer afford.  They could drop your coverage when you became ill.  They could deny your coverage if you had a pre-existing condition.  They do all of those for what?  To make more money… and again, that’s what for-profit companies do.  People have been suffering because of the industry’s inhumane behavior.  Our government finally did something about it, and for some reason many people are raged about it — not because the government took too long to legislate and implement it, but possibly because they just don’t like the government doing anything.

If you are upset about the passage of the bill, is it because it’s against your conservative small-government philosophy?  You are smart enough to know that many of the Republican talking points are flat-out lies.  This is not a government takeover of healthcare, it’s far from it.  If it’s a single-payer plan, although many other industrialized and advanced countries have it and love it, you *could* word it like that to insinuate that you don’t like it.  But remember, this healthcare reform leaves most of today’s health insurance system untouched.  Nobody is taking away your plan if you like yours.  The government isn’t getting in between you and your doctor.  What it does is to prohibit the healthcare industry from behaving inhumanely, and to help uninsured get coverage.  Go and check those facts yourself, if you don’t believe me.

I’m not an economist and I shouldn’t really talk about the fiscal sustainability of this reform, but just one thing: unless you earn more than $200,000 a year or receive highest-premium plans ($10,200 a year for an individual), you are not going to get a tax increase.  Actually this reform will provide the largest middle class tax cuts for healthcare in American history.

Perhaps you don’t like the individual mandate of the healthcare.  The individual mandate, which really is a Republican idea, is there to contain the cost of healthcare —— it is to protect your tax money from irresponsible uninsured people who rely on the Emergency Room services, and to make sure that insurers offer insurance at the same price to a diabetic and to a triathlete (do you think we can keep the auto insurance prices low if safe drivers can opt out from it?).  The mandate is what keeps average premium costs low, and it’s there to be fair for the responsible majority of American people who get employer-based plans or buy private plans.  Do you know that participation in universal healthcare is compulsory in most countries that have it?  Socialized medicine in Britain.  Single-payer in Canada.  Multi-payer with a government floor in France and Japan.  Private plans with heavy public regulation in Sweden, Germany and elsewhere.  None of these plans are voluntary, because universal healthcare won’t work without the individual mandate.  And, here in America, if you can’t afford it, the government will help you pay for it.

..And you know what?  The individual mandate is not actually subject to any criminal prosecution.

What is your concern?

I hear so much distorted and fake information about the healthcare reform from the right — I’m not saying that I don’t hear any misleading talking points from the left or the President, but the stuff from the right is simply crazy, and those who lie publicly to incite anti-government sentiment should be held responsible.  So many falsehoods and distortions, instead of healthy political discourse, have been heard from Washington and the right-wing media lately…  But your common sense can tell you that the ‘death panel’ IS NOT true (it was the lie of the year at PolitiFacts.com!).  You are smart enough to check the facts yourself.  Medicare benefits will NOT be slashed.  Illegal immigrants will NOT be covered.  There’s NO public funding for abortion.  Lies, lies, lies.  Who thought it is good politics to misinform their constituents?

Let’s go back to Dickens’s message of love and generosity that we, still today, find beautiful.  The background might be different; in the context of healthcare, the poor, though not all, are covered under Medicaid in the US today.  But we have the middle class people who are seriously struggling through this difficult time.  If the government didn’t act now, our deficit would grow.  More families would go bankrupt.  More businesses would close.  More people would lose their coverage when they get sick and need it the most… and more would die as a result.  The late Senator Ted Kennedy wrote in his letter to President Obama: “What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”  He understood the sheer terror and helplessness of families with badly sick members.  And imagine how you feel when you cannot afford your child’s or aging parent’s healthcare…  And we are the people who have gotten big-enough hearts to help those in need.  That’s an American character that I love.  That’s the part of America that made it easy for me to waive my Japanese citizenship and to be just an American… for Bach.  Now why can’t our government have a big heart?  Why do you oppose to the government when it is trying to help the middle class America that seriously needs some help right now?  As the President said several times, our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate.  But we do realize that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little, as he said in his address to a joint session of congress: “that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.  And [our predecessors] knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted of beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges.  We lose something essential about ourselves.”

Let’s not lose it.  Let’s not lose what is important to us.  Slandering the President or other elected officials for slander’s sake will not help anything; it will make us lose our loving character as the people.  If you still are upset, please try to see objectively how much you actually know about this reform, and see if you can clarify what this is about.  And let us not forget, we are the government and only we as the people could protect ourselves from health insurance companies’ exploiting the vulnerable.  Dickens’s message is morally true to us.  But we as individuals could not stop the corporate takeover of our healthcare system and help the middle class America— only we as the government could.  The government could still do something beautiful once in a while, regardless of its majority party.  And I want us to be able to recognize that the government’s actions can be the helping hands that a lot of us truly and desperately need.  I know you know that not all spending is wasteful, and not all regulations are evil.  We as the people have big hearts.  So can our government.

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