Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welfare and Socialism for Whom?

Soon, the debate over the future delivery of healthcare to Americans will move into full swing. It will be a long and contentious discussion. Hopefully access to good health care as part of American citizenship will be an accepted baseline in the coming discussion. There will be many good differing opinions about the role of governments in a future healthcare structure. Unfortunately, we can also count on hearing some screams about government-provided healthcare being “socialized medicine,” or how such would create new “welfare entitlements.” I suggest that whenever we hear these words, we are listening to nothing of value in this most critical discussion. When one has no real understanding of the very real human needs or has no intellectual understanding of the difficulties and complexities yet opportunities involved in this arena, then we will see this jump to empty codewords. Codewords intended to scare working people into believing that they will lose control over their own lives (socialism). Or that lesser-deserving people will get what they have not paid for and thereby do not deserve (welfare). Except virtually everyone has now become prisoner to a healthcare system that is out of control, and is not getting access to the healthcare that they need in a financially responsible manner.

If the argument is that government provided services are socialism, and underwriting services for those who cannot afford them is welfare, then what are we to do with all of the socialism and welfare that is already in place that we all enjoy and take for granted? The Constitution charged the federal government to provide for the common defense, so it maintains a military to protect us. The US government has provided a postal service since Ben Franklin started it. They do a remarkable job taking my scrawled handwriting on a paper envelope and delivering it 2-3 days later to someone’s mailbox nailed to their house out in the countryside thousands of miles away. All for 42 cents. The FAA keeps track of thousands of airlines and millions of passengers in the air everyday. In spite of how badly run the corporate US airlines have become, we have a minimal occurrence of accidents and deaths from that congested travel. The federal government already extensively and successfully provides direct healthcare to millions of military personnel and their families, to veterans, and to Congressmen/women – care not available to most of us. It provides health insurance to millions of senior citizens. It provides additional health care and/or insurance to other millions of disabled people and children. So let us please stop talking about government-sponsored health care as if it is some brand-new invention the devil.

It is a long list of services the US government provides every day. Sometimes bungled by obscure bureaucrats buried in the bowels of the organizational charts, out of touch with the diverse realities of small-town America. But what have been your experiences of late trying to navigate customer services in free-enterprise corporate America? Hello, India! Both government and private enterprise have their successes and failures.

If “welfare entitlement” is supposedly about something for nothing, then what about all of the corporate and personal welfare we all take advantage of every day. Our tax code is filled with special treatment for selected businesses and classes of individuals, which is why Warren Buffet and his peers pay less percentage income tax than his secretary. The Department of Agriculture pays subsidies, “not to grow” programs, and price supports for farmers, most of which goes to big agri-business growers and passive investors (David Letterman a farmer?), not the family farmer of our mythic dreams. Who among us is willing to give up our mortgage interest deduction, originally written for the home construction industry to stimulate home ownership. A deduction none of the millions of renters enjoys. And, of course, our employer-provided health insurance which is free and non-taxable, even though it is worth thousands of dollars in additional compensation. Explain that supposed fairness to the millions of Americans unemployed or employed-without-benefits.

And, of course, there are all the civilian jobs created by the Pentagon for procurements and defense bases across the country that even the military says are not needed. Or the biggest of all socialistic actions by our government – the first governmental commitment in the world, honored to this day, that all citizen children will receive a basic education regardless of their family’s ability to pay, underwritten by all adult citizens who thereby give back to others the gift they received, even while private enterprise schools also successfully coexist side-by-side for those parents who wish to pay over and above.

The list goes on endlessly. One person’s socialism is another person’s entitlement. So if some critic wants to stand up and yell “socialism” or “welfare,” then the only logical response should be, “So what government entitlements you now get are you willing to give up?” There can emerge many different ways to tame this healthcare beast. Let us allow for both private industry and government roles where each is best positioned. Let individual initiative do what it does so marvelously, while common social fabric needs are being concurrently met. But speak to me of substance, of ideas that lead to outcomes, without labels. Let us all drink from a cup of humility, commit to intellectual honesty, and level the playing field equally for everyone before we stand on the dishonest stage of the rhetorical demagoguery of codewords.

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