Tuesday, July 18, 2017

But Us Chickens (Everything is Broken)

A certain level of prophesy is not that hard.  In fact, it's an indispensable part of making decisions about the future, which we all do every day, and specifically on election days.

It wasn't that hard for me to see the disaster that George W. Bush was going to be, when the smart people were making jokes about Gush and Bore in the 2000 campaign.  It was even easier for me to see what a total catastrophe was going to quickly ensue after the election results of 2016, as much for what the outcome said about the electorate, the media and the other swells as the candidate.  As I wrote at the time, when the voters elect the candidate that 60% of them say in exit polls is unqualified to be president, there's a lot that's badly broken.  Both of these elections ushered in prolonged and very painful dramas, and of course, one of them is far from over.

But far easier than either of these, were the prophesies--made by many others as well as me--that greeted the so-called Reagan Revolution in the early 1980s: the era of "privatization," tax cuts supposedly leading to instant prosperity along the Laffer curve (and what a laugh it was),  the superior morality and even heroism of getting rich by any means possible, with the corresponding devaluing of public service and starving of the public sector.  Despite the repeated failures of these ideas, they continue as Republican gospel, and continue to dominate how things are done in the United States.

The consequences we all predicted have come true, over and over, until here we are: a broken country, in just about every way.

Witness Jonathan Kay's musings in the Atlantic, prompted by what should be a shocking situation: a bridge between the US and Canada is falling down, a bridge that carries over $200 billion worth of commerce each year.  Canada is calmly rebuilding their half.  But the US is too paralyzed--and the city of Detroit too broke--to rebuild theirs.  So Canada is footing the bill for the whole bridge, including the customs station on the US side.

Kay acknowledges other problems presided over by Canada's government.  But the question he addresses is: what has happened to the United States?  His answer:

"The United States is falling apart because—unlike Canada and other wealthy countries—the American public sector simply doesn’t have the funds required to keep the nation stitched together. A country where impoverished citizens rely on crowdfunding to finance medical operations isn’t a country that can protect the health of its citizens. A country that can’t ensure the daily operation of Penn Station isn’t a country that can prevent transportation gridlock. A country that contracts out the operations of prisons to the lowest private bidder isn’t a country that can rehabilitate its criminals."

The problem is the most basic one identified in 1980, using all of the knowledge gained in grade school arithmetic: you get what you pay for, and in public infrastructure and services, that means taxes.  Kay continues:

"It’s really quite simple: When Canadian governments need more money, they raise taxes. Canadians are not thrilled when this happens. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, taxes are the price paid “for civilized society.” And one of the reasons Canada strikes many visitors as civilized is that the rules of arithmetic generally are understood and respected on both sides of the political spectrum."

Tax cutting and tax avoidance have become unshakably sacred in America, despite the fact that they benefit the very wealthy the most.  Kay suggests that the US could have at least as robust a public sector as Canada does--including universal health care--with a raise in the average tax burden of 10%.

Apart from the magical thinking of Reaganist Republican economics, there are deeper questions of the public good and how to address it.  Privatization of prisons and schools were supposed to work because, the theory said, private companies would have incentives to do a good job in order to make money, whereas public servants have no incentives at all.  Apart from the insult to teachers etc., it turned out that the only incentives were to make profits at the expense of everything else, including by both illegal and immoral behavior,  just don't get caught.

Gradually the cultural context changed so much however that elements of our shared lives that had always been recognized as a public good became profit centers.  In a New York Review of Books piece, Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband summarize the great and tragic change in American healthcare that has made human suffering into a money-maker.

From the days not so long ago that most medical insurance was underwritten by the nonprofit Blue Cross/Blue Shield to today's profit-centered system, regulated at last to some degree by Obamacare, it is clear that apart from the consequences in suffering, we've rather nicely corrupted ourselves, and don't even seem to know it.

I grew up in a United States that used taxes to build highways and airports, water and sewage systems, in which water, gas and electricity were public utilities.  I grew up with Blue Cross and nonprofit hospitals.  It was far from perfect, but it was better than this cacophony of hype and hypocrisy, merciless monopolies and unapologetic profiteers, presiding over a broken country.

Playwright Arthur Miller used to say that a drama begins at the moment the chickens come home to roost--that is, the moment when past actions and inactions present consequences.  But there have been many such moments since the 1980s, and we don't notice them, or not for long.  Yet the consequences are all around us, with no solace to those who foresaw them.  And there's nobody here but us chickens.