A Status Quo We Can Believe In: Obama The Risky Radical?

For reasons I still don't quite understand, there exists an almost cult-like enthusiasm for the Junior Senator turned Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama. The sense of hope is palpable among the millions who dare to dream that it will be this man from Illinois who will finally deliver the "change we can believe in," as his campaign slogan, and the thousands of tee shirts I am seeing around town so proudly boast.

No where is this more apparent than in healthcare where, finally, there is bipartisan acknowledgment that grand reform is necessary and, as if cosmically ordained, there is a passionate young politico willing to take on the risks of fighting the established order in pursuit of a systemic overhaul. If only it really were that beautiful.

Mr. Obama, for all his rhetoric and promises, offers us no substantial departure, in theme, from the status quo. He does not seek to address the underlying causes that are at the root of our present quandary, but rather places his faith in the same tired themes of government expansion and influence that have been the modus operandi of health policy for the last 70 years. The man may be young, but his ideas are quite old, and have been a staple of left-wing politics for more than a century. In pursuing them as he does, he risks nothing, save running into the same snags that those who came before him met. In fact, any departure from these tired themes would be far more risky and radical. A post will follow shortly detailing how Mr. McCains healthcare Rx is far more radical than the Democratic brand.

It should be remembered: An aggressive perpetuation of existing themes does not demonstrate a commitment to reform, as we should properly understand the concept. Rather, it suggests a fear of change and an unwillingness to consider solutions that might lie outside the box of traditional political thinking.

"YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL" - Tyler Durden, Fight Club

The concept of universal healthcare, enforced by the state, is hardly radical. In point of fact, it has been the great ambition of progressive minds for more than a century now, most with exceptionally nefarious intentions. The clearest evidence of this can be traced to the "great" ideal of social insurance thought up in Germany under Otto von Bismark. The ulterior and altogether undiscussed motive however was control, an effort to make people feel dependent on the state. Any idea of cost sharing under Bismark's scheme was immediately dismissed by the Chancellor as, in his words, "if the worker must pay, the effect on him is lost," as he would then see that he himself had earned the money to pay for the benefits. Seemingly "free" sickness pay would, however, make workers grateful to the government. The entire scheme, it was believed, would be far easier to implement if people felt as if they had to look to the state for security.

As it turns out, this perception never quite took hold in America.

Be that as it may, American progressives envied what they saw as the benevolent European notion and adopted it as one of their most cherished and ambitious causes. Theodore Roosevelt himself, when running for President under the Progressive banner, endorsed compulsory health insurance as part of his platform in 1912. The scheme was famously defeated however through the cooperation of fraternal organizations, private insurers, labor unions, Christian Scientists, and physicians, albeit in some cases for wildly different reasons. What was shared, however, was that a usurpation of control over worker sovereignty in times of sickness was detrimental to all parties involved, be it union, doctors, insurers, and of course the workers themselves, the fear being that the government would begin to dictate the terms of treatment and the very definition of ailment, a theme rampant in the Medicare program.

What was shared among proponents of the measure was an effort to make individuals feel dependent on the state, and insecure in their own ability to provide for themselves, assuming they either could not or would not take on the responsibility.

The sentiment was not lost upon Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, the great champion of an expansion of the American state, who also endorsed universal health insurance. His administration, however, in the midst of an economic depression and dramatic regulatory reform of the economy, was want to throw all of it's weight behind the notion of universal health insurance, believing the American persistence for self-sustenance still too intact to be legitimately eroded by state-run medical dictates. This perception was made immeasurably clear during the discussions over the parameters of the Social Security Act. The same unlikely bedfellows that joined forces to defeat Teddy Roosevelt's ambitions reemerged, and voiced their opposition so boisterously that Edwin Witte, the Staff Director for FDR's Committee on Economic Stability was convinced that any health insurance amendment would "spell defeat for the entire program of Social Security." It seems the petulant American insistence on self determination was still to strong to be broken by the mere platitudes of eloquent politicians making grandiose promises.

This perception was also partly due to the fact that any such provision would be funded by a heavily regressive tax, much as it is today. Consider the following:

Health insurance premiums paid by an employer, mandatory or otherwise, are not subject to any tax. Thanks to our system of progressive taxation, this subsidy becomes increasingly valuable the higher tax bracket you are in. Speaking generally, if a rich individual, in a 50% tax bracket, were to have $1,000 put towards health insurance on his behalf, he would save $500. A poorer individual, however, in perhaps a 15% tax bracket, would save only $150 on that $1,000 contribution. Further, it is the wealthier individual who is more likely to have the more encompassing insurance policy, and thus more likely to save on the investment.

It was Lyndon Johnson who readopted the mantle of socialized medicine, more for the sake of the Democratic Party than for himself. Knowing that it was a prime goal of FDR, abandoned in the tumult of the Second World War and the death of the four-term President, and then picked up by the inauspicious Harry Truman in the post-war years, Truman was actually the guest of honor at the 1964 Medicare signing ceremony. In fact, it was Truman who received the very first Medicare Hospital Insurance Card, No. 001.

Some people might find it hard to swallow, rightly, that a wealthy ex-president would need a subsidy from working Americans to pay for his medical care, but so committed to the Progressive cause were they that not only were the Democrats not embarrassed, they were proud of their accomplishment, even as it soon became clear that the program was financially insolvent over the long term. This Robin Hood in reverse scheme however was exactly what the movement had been hoping for since the turn of the century: a step towards "universal coverage" through a system of European "social insurance" where everyone pays for everyone else's healthcare.

And once again, here we find ourselves. We are in a new century and a new breed of politician is advocating for the same ideas advocated by his progressive brethren of bygone eras. The Obama plan, it should be noted, does not call for an outright leap into a world of Bismark-ian social control. It is, however, the next link in the chain of events that has been forming over the last century or more and is leading us inexorably to the point of no return, where the government will be in charge of our healthcare, our independence broken, and our reliance on the state complete.

Is this really the kind of change we want to believe in?