The Nation of More

The divisive debate over the health care bill reveals a certain culturally inherited and continually propagated commonality that most Americans refuse to acknowledge.

What exactly is that “commonality”? Nothing other than a burning desire for “more.”

To begin with, in the current American culture, “better health care” really translates into “more health care,” but the way in which the partisans on both sides of the debate are arguing sheds an unpleasant light on a certain aspect of our “national character,” in so far as any country has a “national character.”

From what I can discern, those who might be characterized as “haves” are attacking the recently unveiled versions of the health care bill as adding to the national deficit, reducing individual choice of doctors, penalizing those who don’t buy adequate insurance, failing to rein in the depredations of the ambulance-chasing trial lawyers, raising taxes on those who already pay the vast majority of federal and state income taxes, and in general penalizing those who’ve been successful through hard work. All this amounts to a statement that government is going to “take” from them, or, if you will, reduce their share of “more.”

On the other hand, those who would not generally consider themselves as “haves,” and their supporters, are insisting that health insurance is essentially a “right” for all Americans, that every American should have affordable [i.e., cheap] health insurance, that the insurance companies have padded their profits by practices that disenfranchise tens of millions of working Americans from health care through denial of care and coverage by every legal [and sometimes not so legal] means possible, that the cost of health insurance and medical procedures should not drive people into bankruptcy, and that doctors and health care providers reap enormous profits while failing to improve the overall health care systems.

All of these points on both sides have some degree of validity, and I’m not about to assess the comparative merits of each point. I will note, however, that almost all of them bear on the issue of who gets “more.”

Now… whether Americans like it or not, the current nation is based on immigrants who traveled here in order to get more, whether they were failed aristocrats or second or third sons of old world nobility, crafters who saw no hope of advancement, Irish and other ethnic immigrants fleeing starvation or worse, debtors, or those leaving behind a myriad of other problems, the vast majority came seeking “more,” whether it was more freedom, greater prosperity, more land, better opportunities for children…

The endless and continual striving for more has its good and its not-so-good sides. The good that has resulted from this drive for “more” is considerable, including a political system that over time has managed to offer a wide range of political freedoms and to transfer power with less disruption than most advanced nations, a level of technology and prosperity for the majority of Americans that is unprecedented in world history, an openness to social and technological change, and a culture that allows those with great abilities to prosper, usually without regard to their social and economic position at birth.

Unfortunately, the evil is also significant, if less obvious, and less talked about, even by so-called liberals. We have spawned a culture of consumption that equates well-being with possession and use of an ever-higher level of goods, possessions, services, and personal space in housing. We have come to measure success almost entirely in terms of the material. We have increasingly come to devalue those who are less able or less fortunate, to the point where we have the greatest discrepancy in income between the poor and the wealthy of any industrialized and technically advanced nation on the planet. We have increased the debt that must be paid by our children and their children to unbelievable levels. We have equated excellence with popularity and material prosperity.

But… the furor over the current health legislation underscores what might be called a sea change for the culture of “more.” In the past, the culture of “more” was based largely on “undeveloped” and cheap land, advances in technology, in means of production, and in the greater and greater use of energy, almost exclusively of fossil fuels. All of these are now running into the inexorable law of diminishing returns. For example, we communicate instantly; and there’s nothing faster than instantly. The energy and technology costs of traveling faster seem to preclude much improvement in current speed of transport. Production efficiencies result in fewer jobs required for reach unit of output, and this has certainly contributed to an economy that economists claim is recovering, even as unemployment increases.

As for the health care issue, we now possess the technology and knowledge to allow “more” in terms of health — more procedures to extend and improve life, but what we lack is the resources, under our current socio-political customs and procedures, to apply those procedures to a population of over 300 million people.

For the first time in U.S. history, it appears that we have reached a point where we can’t have “more” of everything, where technology and energy cannot meet all the needs and wants we as a society demand be fulfilled — and the health care legislation represents the first political presentation of this conflict… or the first one that clearly impacts every single American in some way… and almost none of us like the options.

So… which “more” will prevail — that of better health care and life-style or that of bigger and better consumerism? Will we find some sort of compromise? Or will the struggle deteriorate into an undeclared conflict between the haves and have-nots? Or will the result be a stand-off that amounts to a collective burying of heads in the sand?

1 thought on “The Nation of More”

  1. E.T. Price says:

    What is "insurance" as it applies to health care? Or, for that matter, anything else? traditiionally, insurance is used for a CATASTROPHIC event. Typically, if one has automobile insurance, for example, it is simply "there," unused–until the owner has an automobile accident. So, my definition of insurance is that it (insurance) is a mechanism to protect the owner of such a policy from a catastrophe.

    I believe that health insurance started out as a protection from catastrophic events. But as evolved, health insurance is now a misnomer. It is used for everything from a band-aid on a finger, simple head colds, and simple medicine (i.e. prescriptions) to esotoric and expensive medical procedures. What's more, insurance bean counters (who, almost by definition are there to help an insurance company's bottom line) now have the power of life and death in deciding who gets what in medical decisions. So here we are, trying to hammer out a national healthcare consensus. Yet even the federal government calls it "health insurance." True health care, is NOT insurance and should not have that moniker attached to it. I am a proponent of national health care. The United States is the only major western nation that does not have a national healthcare system and I think that all Americans should have access to healthcare, equally whether one is rich or poor.

    The concept of "more" is an interesting concept as originally written in this blog, and, I think, excellently presented. There are no easy answers. For example, suppose a universal "cure" for cancer was discovered, overnight. Imagine the immense strain that this cure would place on our society. Actural tables and forecasts would be turned upsidedown. Death rates would plummet (good, right?) and people might suddenly live much longer; a person achieving the age of 150-175 might become commonplace. But wait! What about jobs, retirement, social security, etc.? What about our youth and their ability to establish careers? It would be a mess… in fact, I have a strong suspicion that our present level of technology could quickly make a cure for cancer and the ancillary things such a universal cure entail a reality. Part of the reason why this has not happened may very well derive from the politics of "more."

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