Health care in America: a bit of history

Something I didn’t know but often wondered about: Why did the U.S. chart a much different course on health care than most other industrial nations? Why, specifically, do we have a bloated private insurance sector, extremely high medical costs, so many without insurance, and serious problems of coverage for those who do?

Writing for the New York Times, Cornell economist Robert Frank observes that we need to go back to WWII to find the answer. In both the preparation for and prosecution of the war the federal government froze wages and prices. Since there was such a great need for factory workers to produce war materiel, and given the freeze on wages, how could firms acquire sufficient labor? While the government would not allow wage competition it said nothing about benefits. Enter health insurance. Frank:

The United States probably would have adopted one of those models had it not been for historical accidents that led to widespread adoption of employer-provided plans in the 1940s. To control costs of World War II mobilization, regulators capped growth of private-sector wages, making it hard for employers to hire desperately needed workers.

But because many fringe benefits weren’t capped, employers spied a loophole: they could offer additional benefits, like health insurance. Its cost was deductible as a business expense, and in 1943 the Internal Revenue Service ruled that its value was not taxable as employee income. By 1953, employer health plans covered 63 percent of workers, versus only 9 percent in 1940.

Today, of course, the whole issue of health care has become a political football, heavily tarnished by irresponsible propaganda (is there any other kind?). Universal health insurance is socialist! Well, that’s an old epithet, used successfully by the American Medical Association when Harry Truman proposed a Canadian style of government-guaranteed health insurance. Americans, as a rule, become apoplectic at the mere mention of socialism, without bothering to ask why other, perfectly respectable countries, have viable and, in some cases, dominant socialist political parties.

Our level of discourse sucks, because we choose to be willfully ignorant and pathologically myopic. We yell and scream at one another, playing cynical games as if nothing serious were at stake.

Meanwhile, millions suffer unnecessarily in service to “freedom.”

Praise the ordinary

To be a success one must be rich, or beautiful, or athletic. Right? We tend to mark our lives against those who have attained some measure of cultural greatness, whether it be Bill Gates or LeBron James or Jennifer Aniston or the president.

How silly, really. We need not be extraordinary to be successful, as this New York Times article tells us.

And that’s a problem. Because “extraordinary is often what the general public views as success,” said Jeff Snipes, co-founder of PDI Ninth House, a corporate leadership consulting firm. “You make a lot of money or have athletic success. That’s a very, very narrow definition. What about being compassionate or living a life of integrity?”

Indeed, one doesn’t have to be great to be good. We can forgo the Darwinian social struggle by being ordinary, embracing life’s vicissitudes, while being compassionate toward others.

Take the ‘mean’ out of ‘meaningful.’ We don’t have to be bastards.

Stinking tomatoes

The last tasty tomato I consumed was from a former colleague’s garden. And that was over 20 years ago. When I survey the produce at grocery stores I go for the reddest, believing that they must be better. I’ve been fooled.

The New York Times reports:

The unexpected culprit is a gene mutation that occurred by chance and that was discovered by tomato breeders. It was deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes because it conferred an advantage: It made them a uniform luscious scarlet when ripe.

Now, in a paper published in the journal Science, researchers report that the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato. And these findings provide a road map for plant breeders to make better-tasting, evenly red tomatoes.

These researchers have been able to turn the gene back on while also keeping the “red” gene active. The result, reports the Times:

To test their discovery, the researchers used genetic engineering to turn on the disabled genes while leaving the uniform ripening trait alone. The fruit was evenly dark green and then red and had 20 percent more sugar and 20 to 30 percent more carotenoids when ripe.

Now when will we get a chance to buy and eat the new and improved tomato? It could take a while.

…do not look for those genetically engineered tomatoes at the grocery store. Producers would not dare to make such a tomato for fear that consumers would reject it.

Oh, well. Pass the sucking red tomato.

The hoax

Senator James Inhofe has said that global warming is a hoax, one of the biggest ever. Meanwhile, the country is treated to record high heat waves and disastrous storms. The New York Times:

Meanwhile, weather forecasts predicted that the severe heat would continue.

The hottest weather in the mid-Atlantic is expected around the Washington area, where temperatures on Friday reached 104, topping the record of 101 set in 1934.

The National Weather Service issued a heat warning on Saturday for Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Washington, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Arizona.

The hot weather contributed to the ferocity of the storms, said Valerie Meola, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “The heat primed the atmosphere,” she said. “There was plenty of instability in the atmosphere to tap into, and these thunderstorms certainly tapped into it.”

The winds ranged from 60 to 80 miles an hour, with the Weather Service tracking a top wind speed of 81 miles per hour in Tuckerton in southern New Jersey.

Rest comfortably. This is all just a hoax.

Blessed are the poor?

Not in GOP-dominated states. Several Republican governors announced that they would not expand Medicaid, despite the federal government’s paying all of the costs over the next few years. Under the Affordable Care Act states would gradually assume more of the Medicaid costs, up to a maximum of 10 percent by 2020. Yet, even that is too much for our modern-day conservative.

A.C.A. provides subsidies to those making up to four times the poverty level to fund health care insurance premiums. But those making less than $23,050 for a family of four would be covered by Medicaid.

However, in its decision on Thursday the Supreme Court, while validating the individual mandate, allowed states to opt out of expanding Medicaid. As written, A.C.A. would have permitted the federal government to withhold all Medicaid subsidies unless states expanded Medicaid. Republicans have cheered this part of the ruling, with New Jersey Governor Christie calling it “a ray of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy day,” according to the New York Times.

Why are Republicans such assholes? They will gladly cut taxes on the wealthy as they screw the poor and preach the Bible—the Old Testament exclusively; they simply ignore the New Covenant and especially the Sermon on the Mount.

Why procreate?

An interesting essay in the New York Times‘ “The Stone” by philosophy professor Christine Overall. She suggests that no one asks a couple why they had a child. More likely, a couple feels compelled to justify their decision not to have children. Prof. Overall believes in reversing these attitudes. She writes:

The burden of proof — or at least the burden of justification — should therefore rest primarily on those who choose to have children, not on those who choose to be childless. The choice to have children calls for more careful justification and thought than the choice not to have children because procreation creates a dependent, needy, and vulnerable human being whose future may be at risk. The individual who chooses childlessness takes the ethically less risky path. After all, nonexistent people can’t suffer from not being created. They do not have an entitlement to come into existence, and we do not owe it to them to bring them into existence. But once children do exist, we incur serious responsibilities to them.