How the patience of the Greeks spells doom; plus, Crazed Doctors for Sanity

The European countries acting on behalf of Greece’s creditors are bullies. Americans are saps. And a group of sane doctors may get the right result for all the wrong reasons.

As is the bully’s practice, the more the Greeks concede, the more the bullies demand. To this point the bullying has worked (for the bullies) but now the country’s managers are in fear for their political lives, at least, so the country looks as likely to default on its debts as to accept the latest turn of the screw.

That’s Greece, which has a long tradition of strikes and other actions aimed at stopping the prosecution of economic and social and physical warfare against the population, whether inflicted from within or without. And it has taken five years of recession and increasingly draconian “austerity” assaults on the citizens and their economy to bring them out into the streets in numbers and with intent sufficient to genuinely scare government officials.

Greece will ultimately default on its debt payments because the more the country gets squeezed, the less able it is to spend money on debt. This is pretty obvious. It’s as if a credit card company had the power to continually lower your income and simultaneously force you to spend less on food, shelter and other essentials in order to maintain your payments to them. When you get to the point of homelessness and starvation, you’re liable to say “Well fuck this” and stop paying them. And perhaps walk downtown to put a rock through their window.

Despite that tradition of what the US military might call “highly kinetic responses” to political and economic events, it wasn’t until this past week that the protests attracted enough people to hint at popular revolt. How much longer will it take the considerably less participatory US audience to turn fearsome? The Occupy movement and the Wisconsin heroics notwithstanding, the mathematics of passivity suggest that the answer is approximately four evers.

Bad as they are, economic conditions are not as awful here for most people as in some other developed countries, and of course Americans have in some respects considerably less to lose than their counterparts elsewhere who are being tenderized with the austerity mallet. Our social safety net was born tattered and erected piecemeal and serves only the desperate, leaving the merely needy to fend for themselves until they’re drowning.

Medicaid, for instance, provides different benefits in California than it does in Missouri than it does in North Dakota, and to people of varying degrees of impoverishment. The new health insurance “reform” program has gaps and exceptions that will paradoxically leave people who earn middle class incomes worse off, in many cases, than those who make less and consequently qualify for more generous government subsidies. Hardly anyone knows all the permutations of the safety net, and a great many people think it’s far more substantial than it actually is.

In other countries, safety net programs are uniform and more broadly applied, and of course health care is a guaranteed social insurance program rather than the US system of welfare for those at the bottom of the heap and a haphazard public-private mishmash for those doing a bit better.

Social insurance programs in the US—Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance and the like—are also less robust, more exclusive and less well understood than in other countries, and in consequence are more vulnerable to attack.

The short version is that Americans by and large don’t know the difference between social insurance and welfare, they don’t know how the various programs function, the programs themselves are often both feeble and unequally applied—making them ideal vehicles for exploiting resentment by people who need help and don’t get it against those who need help and do get it—and inadequately defended, if not openly attacked, by politicians of the “liberal” political party. And on top of that, the institutional press often appear incapable of accurate reporting on the subjects. Consequently, Americans are divided, ill-informed and increasingly less adamant about safeguarding and strengthening the programs that we have.

A group of doctors, including two of those who Democrat Max Baucus had thrown in jail during the health insurance reform hearings, have filed a brief in the Supreme Court case addressing whether or not the individual mandate, the Affordable Care Act provision aimed at forcing Americans to buy crappy (and competition-free!) private-sector insurance, should be declared unconstitutional.

“It is not necessary to force Americans to buy private health insurance to achieve universal coverage,” said Russell Mokhiber of Single Payer Action. “There is a proven alternative that Congress didn’t seriously consider, and that alternative is a single payer national health insurance system.”

“Congress could have taken seriously evidence presented by these single payer medical doctors that a single payer system is the only way to both control costs and cover everyone,” Mokhiber said. “Instead, Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana), chair of the Senate Finance Committee which drafted the law that became the ACA, had two of those doctors – Dr. Margaret Flowers and Dr. Carol Paris – arrested and thrown in jail. Those doctors are now two of the 50 who have signed onto this brief challenging the Constitutionality of the ACA.”

“If the US Congress had considered an evidence-based approach to health reform instead of writing a bill that funnels more wealth to insurance companies that deny and restrict care, it would have been a no brainer to adopt a single payer health system much like our own Medicare,” said Dr. Margaret Flowers. “We are already spending enough on health care in this country to provide high quality universal comprehensive lifelong health care. All the data point to a single payer system as the only way to accomplish this and control health care costs.”

The only absolute certainty in the case is that if the Supreme Court does bounce the mandate, it won’t be because Congress didn’t consider a single-payer plan. Nowhere in the Constitution is good faith required of elected officials.

Dr. Flowers is right, of course; the US spends as much government money per capita on its fragmented health care programs as do most countries with universal care systems, and then we spend the same amount again through individual and employer payments to private-sector companies—all with results that fall short of those in countries that provide universal care, including every developed nation and some less so. And of course the best health care system in the country, with the lowest administrative overhead, best outcomes and highest patient satisfaction is the the Veterans Administration network: the one run along identical lines to England’s completely socialized, completely government-owned and -operated National Health System. And all despite persistent attempts by Republicans and some Democrats to starve the system because of their hostility toward what its success represents.

None of that is likely to matter to the court or to the large majority of those in Congress who despise single-payer on ideological or cash-related grounds (or both). To this point it hasn’t mattered to the press, either. No institutional press outlets have picked up the filing of the brief, and of course the press did an abysmal job of reporting on the single-payer alternative during the manufacture of the Affordable Care Act. Despite the completely unambiguous data supporting the superiority of a single-payer system (indeed, any developed country system, from England’s socialized medicine to Germany’s public-private hybrid) over ours, the press for the most part addressed it only in terms of the theater of protests and arrests and not on substance; when the president excluded single-payer from consideration in his public and private negotiations with Congress, insurers and pharmaceutical firms, the press apparently took that to apply to themselves as well as the participants in crafting the legislation.

Possibly the brief will ultimately attract some attention; possibly anyone reading this could send the press release along to the health care reporter at your local fish-wrapper. As I have repeatedly, with great patience and restraint, told people who think that single-payer is out of the question, the way to get people talking about it is to talk about it.

Meanwhile, more Americans seem to have become benumbed rather than bestirred in the years since financial speculators and crooks looted the economy and then the treasury. Not surprising, as the inside men on the jobs—two successive presidential administrations and many in Congress—have worked steadily to defuse anger against the perps and muddy the waters as to exactly who did what, at the same time as they’ve worked to normalize high levels of long-term unemployment and to lower long-term expectations of what the economy and the government can do for us.

Missing something you never had (and maybe never heard of), as in a sane health care system, is an abstraction too far for people who are being systematically anesthetized against responding sensibly—which is to say, aggressively and against the actual malefactors—to the theft of what they did have. The Greeks, although no more monolithic than are Americans and perhaps not all that much less susceptible to divide-and-conquer tactics, are nevertheless keenly aware of what they had and what they’re losing and who’s taking it all away. And yet they’re still not stringing the agents of their destruction up from street lamps (although they have apparently destroyed many street lamps and almost all of the traffic signals in Athens).

That leaves me with a lot less hope for the near-term future of protest in the US than I had a few months ago, when the success of Occupy at injecting the fever of economic injustice into the political blood stream of the country despite determined efforts to marginalize the protesters and ignore their (quite clear, thank you very much) message had me thinking that the number of Americans able to shake off the exhaustion of their circumstances and rouse themselves to action might be headed toward self-perpetuating growth.

Now, I think we’re mostly just hunkering down and abandoning ourselves to the prospect of being more or less delicately flayed forever, with the degree of delicacy to be determined at the polls later this year. Maybe next Depression, we’ll be less confused.

9 thoughts on “How the patience of the Greeks spells doom; plus, Crazed Doctors for Sanity”

  1. As regards Greece, it’s hard to defend them. It was one thing when they were just screwing themselves over but when they cooked the books and misrepresented their financial situation in order to join the EU they sealed their fate, and they still lie through their teeth at every opportunity. Personally my view is they should be kicked to the curb.

    My Russian wife and I invested in the Latvian real-estate boom and lost over half our investment almost over night when the bubble burst. It wasn’t speculation, it was our new home. A modest flat of 68 sq. meters. Never rich to begin with we joined the rest of Latvia in trying to keep our heads above water while the country nearly collapsed around us. That meant joining the mobile work force and taking contracts where ever we could get them, I haven’t seen my wife for six months now. Haven’t been home in eighteen months.

    But the Baltics are starting to turn a corner and things are looking just a little bit better. Whether Latvia in particular can recover from the austerity measures and exodus of young people remains to be seen.

    But I have no sympathy for Greece at all. Latvia got caught up in cheap credit foisted on an unsophisticated population just freshly emerging from the collapse of the USSR. Greece simply cannot be trusted as they are con artistes through and through. Better they should be cut loose and allowed to default before they take down Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy and the whole house of cards.

    1. Well, but how many of the people who made those decisions are likely to be among the 20% unemployed or the employed headed toward subsistence wages? And what benefit to workers in other countries is it when increasingly impoverished Greeks can’t buy what the other countries are selling? Eurozone workers are already suffering from the contraction in the Greek and other economies. Yet if anyone actually involved with the accounting issues gets hurt by the austerity pogroms, it’ll be quite accidental.

      I’m very sorry for your troubles. Your situation sounds pretty awful. I hope you’re able to turn it around soon.

  2. It’s a tangential point, but surely one of the genius points about globalization (in present even more than earlier incarnations) is the distance of the offices from the affected, rock-throwing downtowns…

    And of course, as you say, the reason Americans remain so ignorant is because there’s no real advocacy. No one with the power to make themselves heard will say it, and will rarely even allow it. The fact that a system which costs half the price for the same or better outcomes, and which manages to cover everyone, is advocated neither by the self-proclaimed budget watchdogs nor the self-proclaimed defenders of the little guy is pretty damn amazing. Fuck ‘em, where’s my rock. It’s not like the world lacks evidence, but Americans sure do.

    Nice post, Weldon.

  3. As they say, “the fish stinks from the head down.” The deeply ingrained culture of corruption and avoidance of taxes in Greece gave birth to the grey economy in which all Greeks with a nudge and a wink knowingly participated. But I don’t want to rant. Real people are now suffering as a result. Doesn’t mean they should be rioting in the streets, burning down their own infrastructure and killing innocent citizens though. Look at how Iceland handled their banking crisis! So maybe the best thing for Greece is to go their own way and start again.

    I think the danger represented by allowing Greece to fester within the framework of the EU greatly outweighs any purchasing power they bring to the marketplace. With so many countries economies balanced on a knife edge Greece could very easily take down the whole shebang and the fact that they are still playing cute games with the IMF & World Bank and fanning the racist flames of hatred against Germans shows that they need to be removed from that equation.

    I’m an expat Canadian presently back in Canada trying to earn a dime and the news here is that Ontario, the engine of the Canadian economy is in such terrible shape that it’s future is, perhaps in a case of hyperbole, described as another Greece in the making. America has it’s own problems. It could well be that a total and complete world wide financial collapse will finally put and end to globalization and we can all get on with our lives. But it isn’t going to be pretty.

    I hear bankers make a rather unappealing and watery stew.

    1. Generally speaking, the rate at which people pay taxes is a reflection of the popular legitimacy of the state. If the state is seen to be corrupt or otherwise illegitimate, then people don’t want to support it financially. And given the patterns of behavior of large international financial institutions, one can’t help but suspect that at least some of them were well aware that the Greek government were fudging numbers and found it in their own interest not to publicize the fact.

      I view the IMF and to a lesser extent the World Bank as basically inimical institutions who use their leverage to impose punitive, neoliberal economic policies upon debtor nations on behalf of creditors regardless what the citizens want, what alternatives there may be and what the culpability of the lenders may be. Not nearly enough people fuck with them. Argentina’s default was one of the more significant factors in that country’s eventual recovery, as it allowed them to obtain unusually favorable terms on their debt.

      Anyway, if the EU would prefer to jettison Greece and just bail out the banks directly, that would seem reasonable to me.

      Regarding banker stew: if only ….

  4. Federalism has always included the right of locals to screw you over, equality surrendered in the name of local options.

    As to the brief, sure enough, Congress repeatedly takes certain things off the table, and the road to change is long. Voting equality didn’t come in one big push even when much more was available to bring forth major change. A good time for universal coverage to come was during the Truman Administration. These days, not so much. But, I’m all for better news coverage, including how so many wanted that crappy insurance but couldn’t get it for one reason or the other, many of whom now (though you rarely hear about it) are able to do so.

    We are seriously having a conversation about contraceptives at the moment. I use the term loosely.

    1. But for certain unfortunate distractions, we might well have gotten a jump on single-payer or some other government-administered plan during the Nixon administration.

      Someone close to me recently bought crappy coverage of the sort that will be eligible for subsidy in 2014—because the premiums for the previous, quite good coverage she had before she lost her job two years ago amount to almost a third of her take-home pay in the new job—and wound up stuck with a $7500 ER and diagnostics bill because the crappy insurance company determined that the tests were unnecessary and the emergency wasn’t an emergency.

      So now she’s stuck with the premiums for the crappy insurance (which she can’t really afford to give up because what if) and the uncovered bills. Meanwhile, there are and will be no real constraints on premium increases other than the peer pressure among corporations bedeviled by the niggling fear of a consumer backlash—countervailed by the fear that the competition might get away with an insane premium hike, leaving one’s shareholders irate—from which they are shielded by their congressional and executive branch shills.

      There is an irreconcilable conflict between profit and decent universal care. That Obama chose to use the State of the Union speech as an opportunity to assert that health insurance is something best left to the private sector marks him as either an opportunistic fraud or an idiot. For all his flaws, I don’t think he’s an idiot. Maybe I’m being uncharitable in thinking he’s not.

  5. “to assert that health insurance is something best left to the private sector”

    I find this misleading at best. If it was “left” to the private sector, we wouldn’t have government run health insurance for nearly all senior citizens etc. We wouldn’t have a ton of regulations forcing insurance companies to cover people. A department store is “left” to determine what goods to sell. Insurance companies are not. “I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny your coverage, or charge women differently than men.” And, it is quite possible that some ideal system would involve private insurance companies carrying out some universal system along with the government. Many countries have some form of that.

    As to crappy insurance companies, I assume many people can raise emotionally upsetting stories about how government benefits were denied too. As to necessary reforms, fine, that’s important to underline. And, when FDR brought forth major changes in the ’30s, it was important — while millions were helped — to point out the deficiencies, including some fixed decades later.

    1. “I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. … That’s why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a Government program.”

      I’m not being tendentious, Joe. I don’t see anything misleading about what I said in relation to what he said.

      I’m not familiar with every public-private system, but the ones with which I am familiar bear no resemblance in philosophy or function to ours. They are in effect government programs under which private companies are permitted to operate at regulated profit so long as they provide services equal in quality and cost to what the government can provide directly.

      We have existing, functioning models right here in the US, never mind outside our borders, demonstrating the quality and cost of government programs. They are superior to what private insurers can offer in every respect other than choice of physician, and they would be equal in that respect if they were universal. He’s either lying or he’s massively ignorant.

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