Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How the Right and the Left Destroyed the Public Option

What's the common denominator linking crummy public transport, military contractors and the public option being taken off the table in the health care reform fight? Why is a single-payer health care provider "unthinkable"? The common denominator is that the United States is in the thralls of a demented cult that combines the idea of privacy and the profit motive into what is, in fact, our civil religion. It's a crap religion.

The Cult

If the "public option" for health-care reform is off the table who's to blame? We all are -- left, right, moderate, progressive, we have glorified the notion of privacy, profit and individual space for so long that we wouldn't know a public option if one bit us in the ass.

A weird convergence of factors has resulted in United States of America being one of the only places on earth where all sense of a public space, let alone public duty, is off the table as a matter of faith. Privacy, ownership and profit are what we are about.

Examples: Roe v. Wade (whatever your view of abortion) was argued on the basis of privacy. The right to own weapons has been carried such a ludicrous point, in terms of private ownership, that we have little mercenary armies marching around in the woods calling themselves militia groups and armed to the teeth with semiautomatic high-powered military-style weapons. Our trains are 50 years behind the rest of the world's because some genius addicted to the cult of profit decided that they aren't infrastructure but just another business.

"Privacy," "choice," "profit" -- these words are the only American religious creed. Hatred and fear of the government has been both a right wing and left wing preoccupation when government seems to be in a position to curb this cult.

What went wrong?

My son commutes every day to Boston from Newburyport, Massachusetts; a train ride that in Switzerland, France, Germany or even England would take 15 to 20 minutes but here drags on for an hour and 10 minutes. Here our trains must be "profitable" to exist so there is no money to update the system. In other places they work, are updated -- and lose money. The gain is an infrastructure that allows for massive wealth creation in other sectors.

Our train system is stuck in the 19th century. Our health-care providers have been taken over by today's equivalent of the robber barons. Even our prisons are being run by private corporations. When my Marine son fought in Afghanistan and Iraq he and the other soldiers and Marines were outnumbered by the private contractors earning 10 times what our soldiers were earning for doing the same jobs and while making hundreds of millions of dollars for a privatized defense establishment.

"Christian" Heretics

What is so curious is that in this religious country of ours the same evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics and others who are running around saying that we had a "Christian foundation" have forgotten that one of the great contributions of Christianity (going back to the fourth century) was public nonprofit hospitals and hospices. Since when are Christians against vocation? Since when does Christianity teach that profit must trump all other considerations? -- "I'm my brother's keeper, if I get paid"?

Somehow right wing evangelical Christians now seem to believe that Jesus commanded that all hospitals be run by mega corporations for profit. Somehow the right also thinks that it's normal for the state to hand over its duties to private companies for military operations, prisons, health care, public transport and all the rest. The word "infrastructure" seems to have lost its meaning along with the word "community'"as something for the common good. The common space never needs to "turn a profit" because it is the lifeblood that allows private profit. (Every small business owner about to go under because of health care costs knows this, as does my son, who wastes hours each day on a slow train!)

In fact Christianity was the modern root of the whole idea of public spaces for health care, the rule of law, even public transport and safety that started with the idea of the "king's highway." Public space is what made Western civilization possible. A common law, that applied to all, a common sense of sacred duty to others, a common road system protected by the crown and so forth.

Christianity teaches altruism and altruism is not profit-based. Check out New England's Puritan-established villages. What do you think all those "quaint" post card village greens are? Why do you think they were called the "commons"? The greens are the shared grazing land. Public space was the essential ingredient of Puritan life: church, town meeting house and common grazing land, civic work and hospital building, defense and law. And as for privacy, the community was involved in everything we now hold private.

On the secular side, public space to was also paramount. The dynamism of Western civilization, beginning with the Renaissance in Florence and other European cities, was based on an understanding of the value of public works, public space and public projects combined with private initiative. Walk the great piazzas of Italy and you will be enjoying the public spaces created by civic-minded people who were the forefathers of the Europeans who would build high-speed rail systems that work. Private fortunes were made in the context of a public sector that worked. This is no new thing or "socialism." This is what made the West the wealthy West. (The Medici bankers were no socialists and they understood the need for public spaces!)

If it's Not For-Profit it's Evil. Since When?

Now in the USA we have the worst of all possible worlds: a leftist/libertarian addiction to personal private space, in which no one is allowed to tell anyone else what they should do, combined with this weird anti-Christian "Christian" right wing notion that everything -- even trains, the post office, our infrastructure and medicine, and now even a big chunk of the military (via "contractors") -- must be run for a for-profit motive.

The left, the right, the secular community and the religious community have denied the best of their own heritage when it comes to America. The problem of not getting a public option for health-care reform relates to a philosophical shift in our culture wherein everything has to be justified on the basis of profit and/or privacy. Result: there is no concept of public space at all. Result: idiots shout "socialism" about common sense solutions to our problems that -- very ironically -- the Medici princes of Florence and the Puritans would have all agreed needed to be matters of common public space.

Until Americans -- left and right, atheist and believing -- begin to take another look at where this road of absolutist privacy combined with absolutist profit leads we'll be stuck with the health care that's a mess, trains that don't work and for-profit lunacy: deified individualism.

The Solution

The only real solution is to attack the idea that profit and privacy is sacrosanct. Privacy and profit must be once again balanced by common obligation, public space and civic mindedness trumping individual choice.

We need to get back to the idea of civic space, and public works, not just in health-care but in all sectors of our economy. It's not a question of being anti-capitalist; rather, it's a question of rediscovering a more narrowly defined capitalism that thrives because of a thriving public space. For instance, we need a single-payer health care system and we need it now.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism).

6 comments:

Joe said...

The last time I was in the crowded Northeast United States, those slow trains had an Amtrak logo on them and were operated by the federal government.

I won't go into he US Post Office, that has very good business models inside it (parcel shipping), but still, overall, loses money because it is required by law to deliver first class mail for $0.44 a piece.

It was the public square, under (primarily) FDR that began dismantling the church-driven health care delivery system by applying federal government largess to it. The deed was completed by LBJ and the underfunded entitlements of Medicare and Medicaid. If the government is providing for the infirm and the poor, what role can a church play? Well, maybe niche operations like St Jude.

Why are you complaining? Amtrak and Medicare are Florentine "public square" utopias!

Back to the post office... (sorry!) President Obama mentioned that the post office was unprofitable while UPS and FedEx flourish. The former two have the luxury or carving out a profitable niche where there are huge profits. If you require FedEx and UPS to deliver all letters for $0.44, would they survive?

Likewise, the public option will be as profitable as delivering mail for $0.44 per letter. I practically guarantee pubic option heath insurance will soon be the ONLY choice of the infirm, the AIDs patients, the obese, the heart attack victims, and cancer survivors. No one else will take them and the health insurance lobby will make sure public insurance will become the dumping ground for undesirable health risks.

What we're left with is another underfunded entitlement and a ballooning federal budget deficit. How long will our owners, the Chinese, allow us to carry on that program before they call our notes?

Frank, I admire your enthusiasm to call everyone right of you an idiot. But you are a boring blogger. You post misleading stuff and never reply to your detractors.

Hacksaw Duck said...

Interesting that one of the reasons you laud collectivism is that it makes the trains run on time. Where have we heard that before?

Hacksaw Duck said...

"... [the] United States of America being one of the only places on earth where all sense of a public space, let alone public duty, is off the table as a matter of faith."

We have lots of public parks, public libraries, public museums, wilderness areas -- all kinds of public spaces. What are you talking about?

And as for "public duty" being off the table, says who? Americans are extremely giving with their time and money. "Progressives" rail against Americans as selfish and bereft of philanthropy. But that's self-righteous moral grandstanding. The numbers don't support all the sanctimonious outrage. (Ironically, polling data show time and again that self-described conservatives give more to charity than self-described liberals.)

"The right to own weapons has been carried such a ludicrous point, in terms of private ownership, that we have little mercenary armies marching around in the woods calling themselves militia groups and armed to the teeth with semiautomatic high-powered military-style weapons."

Since when does highlighting the small, insignificant, lunatic fringe of extremists (on either side) constitute a good argument for anything?

"'Privacy,' 'choice,' 'profit' -- these words are the only American religious creed. Hatred and fear of the government has been both a right wing and left wing preoccupation when government seems to be in a position to curb this cult."

So you don't fancy privacy, choice and profit? I guess you must favor the invasion of privacy, the limiting of choice and the reduction of profits? By whom? (Maybe an omnibenevolent government?) And for what? Some utopia in which we work gratis as drones for the collectivist hive? If anything is cult-like, it's THAT kind of sentiment. Lovers of liberty are the antithesis of cultists, who prosper via coercion and groupthink. (Sound of chanting: "Yes, we can ... yes, we can ...yes, we can ...")

And few people really hate government per se. They hate tyranny, fearing the potential of government to exert it. That's a valid fear, as the 20th century should teach us.

"Here our trains must be 'profitable' to exist so there is no money to update the system."

Yes. A service exists if enough people are willing to pay for it. If no one is willing to pay for it, the service goes away ... as it should. Your alternative is that people who don't use it should be FORCED to fund it anyway. Is that just or ethical?

"The gain is an infrastructure that allows for massive wealth creation in other sectors."

Horrors, not "wealth creation!" Anything but that! Before you know it, such wealth might lead to, gasp ... jobs (so people can support their families), investments, consumer spending (so other people can support their families). No, it's better that we all muddle along, consoling ourselves with our righteous intentions.

"What is so curious is that in this religious country of ours the same evangelicals, ..."

Here's where I actually agree with you. I don't know why evangelicalism and conservative religion are of necessity wedded to right-of-center politics.

"If it's Not For-Profit it's Evil. Since When?"

Who ever said such a thing? In whose mouth are you shoving these words? I've never heard a solitary soul utter such nonsense and neither have you.

However, I do believe most non-profits have a serious hindrance. I'd rather be operated on by a doctor who made the grade and excelled under the lure of a handsome salary. Not by one of your altruistic volunteers who has, well ... good intentions.

In the final analysis, to hell with good intentions. I want someone who can do the job well, whose results are top-notch regardless of hidden motives. I want the medical breakthroughs, life-saving drugs and advances that come via rational self-interest and a profit motive. We won't get many of those from your well-meaning Borg collective.

We will get equality (sort of) but it will be equal mediocrity.

Jason said...

Excellent analysis of the "for-profit, anti-commons" cult. American (so-called) "conservatives" -- if they bother to read outside of their own circles -- would probably be quite surprised to learn that what they espouse is actually hardcore support for (economic) *neo-liberalism*!

POP POP said...

Aloha Frank,

I have done a little reading on Liberation Theology and found a fairly good overview at:

http://mb-soft.com/believe/txn/liberati.htm

Social justice themes such as "liberation from oppression and injustice" are discussed briefly. What are your thoughts about the liberation theology approach to oppression and injustice?

Here is a clip from that article I found interesting:

The biblical notion of salvation is equated with the process of liberation from oppression and injustice. Sin is defined in terms of man's inhumanity to man. Liberation theology for all practical purposes equates loving your neighbor with loving God. The two are not only inseparable but virtually indistinguishable. God is found in our neighbor and salvation is identified with the history of "man becoming." The history of salvation becomes the salvation of history embracing the entire process of humanization. Biblical history is important insofar as it models and illustrates this quest for justice and human dignity. Israel's liberation from Egypt in the Exodus and Jesus' life and death stand out as the prototypes for the contemporary human struggle for liberation. These biblical events signify the spiritual significance of secular struggle for liberation.

David
Holualoa Hawaii

Ben Daniel said...

In my less optimistic moments I fear the reasons we don't have better public spaces in the United States is because wealthy and powerful (mostly white) folks know they would have to share the spaces with poor, powerless (mostly not white) folks. I've never studied it, but I'd be willing to bet good money that many of the best American public spaces were built before the civil rights era.

Ben Daniel