Tag Archives: morals

America: Democracy or Dollarocracy?

A mere 15 years after buying it, I am finally getting around to reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Thoughtbasket readers will probably see numerous posts inspired by this book, likely spanning months, since that is how long it will take me to finish it based on my current reading pace.

The basic premise of the book is that while people, as individuals, are generally pretty moral, once they group together – as tribes, countries, companies, trade organizations – they often act in immoral ways. How Niebuhr bridges this dichotomy will require me reading beyond page 25, which is where I am now.

But in setting up the dichotomy Niebuhr discussed the forces that push man into society and ways that society enforces mores and rules. Writing in 1932, he says this:

“With the increased centralization of economic power in the period of modern industrialism, this development merely means that society as such does not control economic power as much as social well-being requires; and that the economic, rather than the political and military, power has become the significant coercive force of modern society.”

I don’t know whether to be relieved or disturbed that the economic elite have controlled our society for at least 75 years.

As the government throws trillions of dollars at Wall Street, with Goldman alumni seemingly running the Treasury department, and bankers using taxpayer dollars to pay themselves multimillion dollar bonuses (why isn’t that bonii?), it really seems like Simon Johnson is right and the financiers have taken over government via a quiet coup. But according to Niebuhr they took over government long ago, and while they have certainly managed to pillage the common man in the intervening years, the reality is that standards of living have increased since the 1930’s, so perhaps economic coercion isn’t that bad. That’s the relieved side of my brain.

US Income Distribution

The disturbed side of my brain, on the other hand, focuses on the pillaging. Note that in the above graph, standards of living have improved dramatically at the top end, but not so much at the bottom end. Not surprisingly, those who hold economic power ensure that society is set up such that most of the proceeds of growth accrue to them. Or, as Niebuhr puts it, “the dominant class….always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.” I wonder when and how we went from being a democracy deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” to a society in which economic entities are dominant.

Should we blame greedy businessmen and craven politicians? Of course. But we need to look in a mirror too. Gary Cross discussed at length in An All-Consuming Century the trade-offs that labor organizations consciously made to ensure steady employment at a stable wage. Many of these trade-offs transferred power from unionized masses to the corporate elite. And as I’ve noted before, we all need to be more active and informed voters; when our representatives are more beholden to corporations than to people, we need to vote them out.

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NY Times is Copying Me

I’m not here to criticize Nicholas Kristof; not only have I linked to him before, but he is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a Rhodes Scholar. But his most recent column says exactly what I’ve been saying recently.

First he says that “universal health care is not an economic or technical question but a moral one.” That is precisely what I said in this post. Then he quotes the new study showing 45,000 annual deaths from lack of insurance. Just as I did in this post. Then he closes by calling America a “great nation,” which is pretty similar to my phrasing: “the greatest…country.”

I’m not saying that Kristof is plagiarizing me. Let’s be honest: I’d be freaking psyched if a NY Times columnist stole my words. I’m just saying that if you want to know what the Times is going to say a fortnight hence, read Thoughtbasket now.

Health Care is a Moral Issue

T.R. Reid, author of “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Healthcare,” recently wrote an article for Newsweek comparing the American health care system to the systems in other developed countries. The subtitle of the article is “To judge the content of a nation’s character, look no further than its health-care system,” and you can imagine where it goes from there. Reid notes that the U.S. is the only developed country that does not provide universal health care, and he quotes the facts that result: 22,000 Americans die per year because they can’t afford a doctor, and 700,000 Americans go bankrupt each year due to medical bills.

Reid compares this to Europe, where they approach health care with an emphasis on equality, on providing service to everyone. Here are some key quotes from Europeans regarding their view on health care:

  • A French physician: “But when we get sick – then, yes: everybody is equal.”
  • A former president of Switzerland: “Because it is a profound need for people to be sure, if they are struck by the stroke of destiny, they can have a good health system.”
  • A Swedish health minister: “The formula is so simple: health care for everybody, paid for by everybody.”
  • The Czech constitution: “health care for all.”

Reid sums it up: “The principle seems so obvious to people in Europe, Canada and the East Asian democracies that health officials asked me over and over to explain why it isn’t obvious to Americans as well.”

In America, on the other hand, we approach health care with an emphasis on freedom of choice, particularly during this summer of health care debates. But it’s not true freedom, since those without insurance are, in fact, denied any choice at all.

Reid again: “In the U.S., in contrast, some people have access to just about everything doctors and hospitals can provide. But others can’t even get in the door (until they are sick enough to need emergency care). That amounts to rationing care by wealth. This seems natural to Americans; to the rest of the developed world, it looks immoral.”

Republicans this summer tried to frame the issue as industrious workers supporting the lazy unemployed and uninsured, but that’s a canard. This frame ignores reality. To look at reality, take two factory workers: one is employed by GM, and has thus insurance, and the other is employed by a small local factory which doesn’t provide insurance. They are equally industrious, equally hard working, but the one without insurance is more likely to skip his doctors visits and – statistically speaking – more likely to die. Or take Nikki White, who was industrious and employed, until she became too sick with lupus to work, thus lost her insurance, was unable to afford the care she needed, and soon died.

The issue is not one of who works hard. The issue is whether we, as a society, want to let the people who randomly get sick (or randomly don’t have insurance) go bankrupt or die, simply because of their random bad luck. As Reid notes, this is a moral issue, and I don’t believe that American morals have decayed this far. We are better than this. We live in America, the greatest and richest country in the world. This country was founded on the premise that “all men are created equal,” remember? Not “all healthy men” or “all wealthy men.” Do we really want to live in a country that allows people to die purely because of their financial situation? I don’t think we do.

FYI, here is a New Republic article on the moral dimension of health care.