U.S.terra incognitA

23 March 2010

A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have. (Gerald Ford, 1974)

Are there any Republicans left, pardon the pun, that haven’t suffered at least one televised stroke as of yet? Let us pray they all have medical insurance—under the current system, GOPers must have had a rough time obtaining coverage on account of their pre-existing condition. (In Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, a father, played by Alan Alda, breathes a sigh of relief upon being briefed by a neurologist about his son’s CAT scan results; of late, the young man had been espousing all manner of radical conservative ideas, perfectly consistent with the location of a small tumor exerting pressure on a particular area of his brain.)

To be fair, the current right-wing meltdown comes on the heels of eight years of collective liberal apoplexy. In their purest incarnations, members of either tribe come across as quite a few box nails short of a hardware store. Camp affiliation in general appears to exert an undue influence on an individual’s capacity to conclude that it’s raining upon seeing droplets of water falling out of a cloud, unless such conclusion happens to comport with the party line. This makes it incredibly difficult for the unaffiliated among us to cut through the pea soup and filter out potentially accurate and hence valuable intelligence from the ubiquitous partisan piffle and bickering.

As per Wikipedia and other corroborating googlidence (evidence procured by googling), I have schizoid personality disorder, defined as a heightened craving for seclusion and a fervent disinclination to join and associate. Now that heath care reform was passed, I expect to be eligible for treatment shortly. Once I am cured and governed by a wholesome desire to belong, I shall decide whether to join the right-wing kooks or the left-wing loons.

For the time being, however, my judgment on complicated matters remains hobbled by the idée fixe that I would have to put in an inordinate amount of study time before throwing in with either crew on any particular issue, and thus I am absolutely, positively, unequivocally, 100% percent clueless as to whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (H.R. 3490) and its little olive branch amendment, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010 (H.R.4872), both signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday, (a) will sink the United States either altogether or at least “as we know it” via transforming the country into a quasi-socialist nation and adding batrillions of dollars to the already quite staggering budget deficit in the process, as Republicans contend in splendid unison (seconded, of course, by the ever weeping Glenn Beck) or (b) whether the new legislation is the best thing since sliced watermelon, as our fearless chief magistrate and his loyal apostelage allege, for not only will it not devour batrillions but actually save hundreds of billions of the green stuff while at long last affording painters and poets and whatnot an opportunity to pursue happiness untrammeled by the pesky distraction of having to worry about mundane matters such as health expenses—and what could be more fundamentally American than that? (Yes. Painters and poets. Just quoting Speaker Pelosi.)

Without having read the 2,400-plus-page legislative leviathan—“double-spaced,” as someone recently remarked in an attempt to assure that the proposed legislation really wasn’t quite as reader-unfriendly as the scare-mongering opposition falsely clamored—let alone researched each one of its clauses in detail for the purpose of appraising its potential to backfire in accordance with the infamous law of unintended consequences; and furthermore without possessing a thoroughgoing understanding of economics beyond the fairly intuitive dictum that spending more than is coming in may lead to trouble down the road, a principle which may or may not hold when it comes to an entity as cortex-witheringly abstruse as the budget of the (still) richest and most powerful nation in history, what with the constant international lending and borrowing such that no common mortal could possibly keep track of all the credits and debits and total them up so as to assess with reasonable certainty and condense into one single fathomable figure the actual condition of the nation’s coffers, not to mention their projected condition in the wake of an unprecedented entitlement experiment … speaking of keeping track, I can’t find the beginning of this sentence, which is precisely my point: it’s all very complicated, and lacking the aforementioned desire to belong—fear of clan alienation generally facilitates coming down on a particular side of a controversy—the schizoid non-expert is left with having to figure this thing out purely on the basis of reams of knotty data.

Having grown up in one of these quasi-socialistic Western European bogeyman nations and recalling that supermarket shelves were always stacked, no faucet ever seemed to run out of clean water (hot or cold), and shortages of any kind were virtually unheard of, I confess I am not exactly quaking in my slippers at the specter of my adopted country “turning into Denmark,” as long as it doesn’t turn into Cuba or Somalia once the entire system collapses under its own entitlement weight.

My relative nonchalance in this matter may derive from the fact that on neither side of the big pond have I ever managed to advance into a tax bracket where Uncle Edelweiss or Uncle Sam would pocket a painfully large cut of my take-home in order to finance my fellow citizens’ artistic ambitions and foot their medical bills in case they inadvertently swallowed an inkwell during a poetry session or got mauled by their subject while attempting to paint a grizzly in the wilderness. Barring some sort of miracle, I’ll always be on the receiving rather than the subsidizing end of the entitlement ledger.

Still, it seems plainly obvious that exorbitant taxation of the affluent affects lower income echelons in ways perhaps not anticipated by those who are genuinely concerned about helping the poor. After all, the more the fat cats are being taxed, the less money they have left over to blow on themselves, and the fewer yachts and $1,000-bottles of wine they will purchase. In consequence, workers in the boat factory get laid off and busboys make less money.

No doubt, a growing entitlement system inevitably causes a proportionally larger segment of the population to slack off and overall ambition levels diminish. Once the basics, such as food, shelter, medical coverage, and perhaps even a certain standard of living beyond those basics, are guaranteed by Uncle Government, more people tend to fall ill with all manner of conveniently unfalsifiable maladies, such as excruciating migraines and back pains that render labor impossible. On balance, processes like recovery from whatever may ail the patient and finding a job mysteriously take much longer in nations where molassitude in these areas is rewarded with a weekly direct deposit into one’s checking account. Even the most math-challenged quickly realize that busting one’s buns to make, say, $32,000 a year if on can collect, say, $30,000 in entitlements means that working full-time only nets an extra 2,000 bucks a year as compared to full-time lemonade-sipping in a hammock. The nifty deposits may not continue forever, but if we’ll have to find a job anyway, why go looking for one any sooner than when we, well, have to?

Liberals, by and large, tend to downplay welfare fraud as rare and negligible in scope. Precisely what understanding of human nature this assumption is based upon I do not know. In general, the more progressively-minded the speaker, the less clear it becomes what species they are actually describing when they they profess to describe the human race. According to the liberal perspective, altruism reigned supreme until money and monotheism were invented, and the ensuing corruption of homo sapiens culminated in the creation of the United States and capitalism. Of course, an extreme version of this bizarre notion of what makes people tick is sketched in the infamous Communist Manifesto, which essentially puts forth the incentive structure of an ant colony as a workable model for human society. (This is not to say that most liberals have much use for the Communist Manifesto; only that they may find its basic tenets an itty bit less otherworldly than non-liberals.)

Conservatives seem slightly more in touch with human nature, albeit somewhat curiously disposed in other areas. It took about thirty seconds to convince these people that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs, but somehow there’s never enough evidence that man’s actions may have a hand in climate change. Instead of worrying about the environment, they’d rather teach intelligent design in biology class. And of course, during the entire Bush administration, no right-winger in front of a microphone ever failed to break into paeans about the economy rockin’ and rollin’ and clicking on all cylinders when, in fact, it was careening straight toward the abyss. So forgive me for not putting too much stock into impassioned GOP rhetoric no matter what the issue may be, including the incessant doomsday prattle about this health care bill. (The doomsday prattle may be right on the money, but if so, then in spite of the messenger’s identity, not because of it.)

Bottom line, in the real world, one should never underestimate people’s ingenuity when it comes to wangling free stuff. And they don’t call ’em entitlements for nothing. The moment a new gift basket has been introduced into the fabric of a society, any subsequent retrenchment thereof will be regarded as outright theft, and giving less becomes synonymous with taking away. If I give you ten bucks today, ten bucks tomorrow, and ten bucks on Sunday, then if I give you only nine bucks on Monday, you’ll accuse me of having stolen a dollar from you. In railing against Obamacare, even our untiringly exasperated Republican anti-Obama warriors are standing there, arteries popping out of their necks, accusing the new health bill of “stealing” from Medicare. Last time I checked, Medicare was a government entitlement program, too. How can the government “steal” from an entitlement the government itself dispenses?

That said, the U.S. certainly has the “best health care system in the world,” as chest discomfort survivor Rush Limbaugh is eager to point out every five seconds, which is precisely why it simply feels wrong, for lack of a better term, if millions of people, for whatever reason, don’t have access to most of it, even if they’re just a bunch of lazy bums who can’t make a proper living; just as it simply feels wrong if 5% of the population control 90% of a nation’s wealth (or whatever the precise percentage may be), no matter how aboveboard those 5% may have acquired their riches, be it via hard work, inheritance, or wise investing. In the end, the larger the disparity between the super-rich and the poor, and the more shrinking the middle class, the more mismanaged a nation looks as a whole. Perception is a bitch.

Besides, even the most ardent Christian conservative will cede that Jesus wouldn’t deny emergency care the sick, so from a purely economic standpoint in makes no sense when people—at taxpayer’s expense—present at the ER with wildly advanced conditions that could have been fixed a lot more cheaply in their early stages if only these patients would have been able to see a doctor then.

The other day, former GOP Congressman and Dancing With The Stars sensation Tom DeLay appeared on Fox News brandishing his personal copy of the U.S. Constitution and insisting he couldn’t find the clause which gave license to the kind of government health-care takeover as had just been signed into law.

Others contend the licence to do so is plainly implicit in the Commerce Clause. Of course, everything as well as its polar opposite can be read into either the Commerce Clause or its magical catchall brother, the Necessary and Proper Clause. Based on the fact that bookstores in more than one state carry the Holy Qur’an, a moderately creative legislature could probably enact Sharia law under the Commerce Clause.

A matter of interpretation, as they say. When you get to a fork in the road, take it.

Although I was personally present neither at the Philadelphia Convention nor at any of the subsequent ratification procedures in any of the 13 colonies, the current battle over passing health care strikes me as eerily reminiscent of what the battle over passing the Constitution must have been like, with Federalists and Anti-Federalists at each other’s throats, each accusing the other of recklessly attempting to destroy the incipient nation. Deals were made, arms were twisted, representatives were pumped full of rum so as to secure their votes, and what ultimately came out of a wash was a document so laced with compromise that now, more than 200 years later, we still can’t figure out what the darn thing actually says in places.

They say that nobody really “likes” our new health care bill. Probably true. No one really liked the Constitution, either, when it was passed—too many limp-wristed concessions to the opposition.

Ancient Egypt had existed for 3,000 years by the time Cleopatra put the asp to her breast. The U.S. is still an incipient nation. At each stage in its evolution, it has stood alone with no precedent in history to guide it. It weathered the great Civil War without falling apart. It may weather government-subsidized health care as well.

Or maybe not.

There has never been a 21st century, and there has never been a constitutional democracy of 300 million people. So nobody really knows what to do. Your guess may be better than mine, but it’s a guess nonetheless.

Terra incognita, once again.

  • http://www.testazyk.com Thomas Stazyk

    One of the more astute summaries of current American politics I’ve seen. The big difference between the Federalists/Antifederalists and the Democrats/Republicans is that in the old days they were civil to each other. And their arguements were based on facts and convictions based on learning and experience.

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      Not sure they were more civil in the olden days, or if they simply used more florid prose to express distaste for their opposition. From what I hear, these guys were pretty rambunctious. I haven’t heard of a sitting vice president killing a former treasury secretary in a duel of late.

      • http://www.testazyk.com Thomas Stazyk

        Yeah, I forgot about the duel business.

        • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

          The most recent shooting incident involving a vice president didn’t quite rise to this level.

  • http://andreaskluth.org/ Andreas

    “…the infamous Communist Manifesto, which essentially puts forth the incentive structure of an ant colony as a workable model for human society..”

    delightful cross-species analogy.

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      I would love to take full credit for my delightful analogy, but it is based on an ant expert named Wilson’s pithy characterization of Marxism:

      Wonderul theory. Wrong species.