Throughout history, human society has typically organized itself into some type of hierarchy with a thin stratum of wealthy, powerful elites riding atop layers of the less well off. The elites carefully protect their exclusively privileged positions, but if done at the expense of the lower classes, it eventually resolves into social upheaval of some sort.
The ancient Roman aristocrats learned it was wise policy to placate the lower classes with bread and circuses. The 18th-century French nobility, not so wise, regarded the lower classes with contempt and “let them eat cake.” The Roman aristocrats kept their heads, the French nobility did not.
While this is admittedly an imperfect and harsh historical allusion, it involuntarily came to mind last week when House Republicans voted to deeply slash the food-stamp program and defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the latter action under threat of shutting down the federal government.
Not exactly a class act for very well-fed Republicans to cut the rations of poor folks; you could almost hear House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., thinking, “let them eat cake."
Even in America, founded on principles of social and economic egalitarianism, upward mobility is threatened by a hardening social stratification that has dramatically accelerated in recent years. Aside from the increasing sharp disparity of wealth, income and opportunity in America, there is an attitude, a way of thinking, that reinforces class consciousness. The wealthy expect and usually receive deferential treatment nearly everywhere they go, even in our courts of law where justice is the best money can buy.
The petrifaction of social strata occurs because the very wealthy, America’s top 1 percent or 2 percent, have amassed so much wealth that they now control the game board for themselves and their heirs. And, they can play on that board anyway they like.
In pursuit of ever more personal wealth, corporate elites and their acquisitive minions can swindle markets and wreck the economy, despoil the environment, and kill people in the process, but no individuals are held accountable for such iniquities of insatiable greed — no one goes to jail or is stripped of their ill-gotten gains.
Not only have the economic elite bought the government and its justice system, their peers occupy most of the higher political offices. They get away with this in great part because too many Americans have been evangelized and duped by either of two ideologies, liberal or conservative. The former is broadly equated with big-government, progressive socialism and the Democratic Party, the latter with limited government, trickle-down capitalism and the Republican Party.
The strident stupidity of ideological certainty among the public facilitates the controlling elites, who have purchased both political parties, to ensure that public policy favors them no matter which party controls government.
Americans need to break out of their belief bubbles and examine issues objectively, without consulting ideological catechisms. If we want a healthy society with equal justice and opportunity for all, we aren’t going to get it by religiously following the formulaic prescriptions of fixed ideological theories that don’t work in reality.
Health care is a critical reality confronting America today. Compared to other models, American health care is grossly and unnecessarily costly while, overall, yielding no better results. It already commands 18 percent of the nation’s annual gross-domestic product while it pushes the uninsured, and even some of the insured, into bankruptcy. In the United States, a hip replacement can cost $100,000, in Belgium only $13,000. A hospital stay is seven times more costly in the United States than in the Netherlands. A pill that costs $2 in the United States costs pennies in India.
Ironically, even without universal coverage, American taxpayers already pay more for health care than do most nations that have “socialized” medicine. Critical medical care is not a discretionary expense for those who need it. But in America, health care is just another market commodity, and consumers’ (patients’) desire to live pretty much guarantees price inelasticity. Prices are high because there is not enough cost-bargaining leverage in the current American model, and plenty of parasitical middlemen gorging on it.
Republicans say they oppose Obamacare on ideological grounds — it is socialist, a government takeover of the private sector. But, because the status quo benefits their upper-class peers, they don’t offer any viable alternatives that would benefit the lower classes. You can almost hear House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, thinking, “let them take aspirin.”
Obamacare is not the best approach to providing universal health care or controlling medical costs — a single-payer system is — but it is a start in the right direction and needs to get under way. Affordable health care for all citizens isn’t any more “un-American” than is Social Security or Medicare; it is a prudent, practical policy that strengthens society by providing an essential element of the general welfare — health.
As wealth disparity becomes greater and the incomes of more Americans stagnate or decline, more of them will sink into the lower economic strata. If the American Dream becomes myth and people lose hope that they can rise up the economic ladder, there eventually will be social upheaval.
It might be prudent for the House Republicans to practice some noblesse oblige.