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Putting the Genie Back In The Bottle. Health Care For All Is the Cork.

Posted on | March 24, 2021 | No Comments

Mike Magee

Two years ago, James Comey wrote an editorial in the New York Times which began, “America has long had a radioactive racist soup in the center of our national life. Donald Trump thinks he is stirring it for political benefit. He’s actually doing something more dangerous.”

The January 6th insurrection, followed by the past weeks two mass shootings, add credence to his earlier warnings. Modern civilized societies rely on a double-armed approach to maintain order, peace and security.

The first arm is laws. But laws are of little value without enforcement. As Comey stated, “It was long a statutory crime to kill another human being; it just wasn’t against the law in practice to kill a black person in many places. The rights to vote and to equal treatment sounded muscular on paper, but they were weaklings in much of America.”

The second guard rail of civility is culture. MIT professor Edgar Schein  describes it this way: “Culture has three layers: the artifacts of a culture — our symbols and signs; its espoused values — the things we say we believe; and, most important, its underlying assumptions — the way things really are.”

In the Senate chamber this week, and in Republican controlled state houses across the nation,  Americans witnessed a colossal collision of reality and ideals in the form of new Jim Crow laws to suppress minority voting rights, and refusal to address gun violence in the wake of not one, but two mass shootings, involving sale of weapons of war to civilians. 

Were these the only flashing alerts signaling danger ahead, that would be enough to cause sleepless nights. But unenforced or unevenly enforced laws, and value dissonance in America, do not occur in isolation, but are supported by an even more erosive underpinning – greed-induced economic inequality.

A 2019 pre-pandemic report in the Wall Street Journal laid out the numbers. While the vast majority of growth in assets in the prior three decades went to the top 10% in the US, debt increased by $9 trillion with ¾ of the debt issued to the bottom 90% of American families. For the top 1% during this period, median net worth grew 178% to over $11 million. For the rest of us, earnings had been flat while housing prices increased 290%, four year college tuition soared 311%, and average per-capita health care expenditures rose 51%.

A May, 2021 WSJ report from the Federal Reserve reinforced the uneven impact of the pandemic: “Almost 40% of households earning less than $40,000 a year experienced at least one job loss in March, versus 19% of households earning between $40,000 and $100,000 and 13% of those earning more than $100,000, the Fed said. And while 85% of those with no work disruption said they could pay the current month’s bills in full, just 64% of those who had lost a job or had their hours cut said they could cover their expenses for the month.”

To put this genie back in the bottle, we must simultaneously address the nation’s values, its culture and its economics. To accomplish this, artificial barriers like the filibuster rules in the Senate must be dismantled.

Beyond this, the quickest, most direct pathway to address income inequlity, safety and security is now through universal health coverage. Not only would this offer the opportunity to distribute wealth more equitably, but it would also offer the country the opportunity to acknowledge mistakes of the past, and work anew at aligning our actual behaviors with our stated values of compassion, understanding and partnership.

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