I am in beautiful Buenos Aires, Argentina, as I write this. Buenos Aires is the capital of the world’s best steaks and the one and only Tango.
Argentina is a land of many contrasts, a nation rich in culture but a history rife with turmoil. And yet, despite decades of political instability and at least one major war, Argentineans of all persuasions have at least agreed on one thing: that the nation’s 37 million citizens shall have access to basic health care. Fifty percent of Argentineans are covered by the public sector; 45- percent by “mutuals,” or employer-employee contributions; and only 5- percent are privately insured. Thousands of miles to the north, at home in America, things are different.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as a caring, generous, good people. Our wars we traditionally view as the harbingers of good. Our hard-won victories in the first and second World Wars brought good things to many people on the planet. We helped to liberate Asia and Europe of Japanese and German totalitarianism by force, but immediately thereafter supplied these same war-weary nations with C.A.R.E. packages. The Marshall Plan provided $13 billion dollars to nations of the world scourged by six years of mindless conflict—that’s $100 billion in today’s currency. Happily, and very often, we have stepped up to help suffering people around the world. Whether providing food to the hungry, lending medical assistance to the sick, or rescuing people in the wake of a natural disaster, America the Good Samaritan has always been there to fight the Great Crusade.
And yet, sitting here in Argentina tonight, a nation now at peace after generations of unrest, I am reminded that we have one “good war” left to fight: to provide our own citizens access to basic health care. America is the only industrialized nation on earth without basic health insurance for its people. Everyone else on this planet cannot be wrong.
My conservative friends argue that we cannot afford health care, but nothing could be further from the truth. Have not the same people eagerly and passionately committed our nation to repeated military adventures and mind bogglingly expensive weapons programs while, with the same degree of passion and vigour, denying millions of needy Americans access to affordable health care?
Did not the same faction miraculously find trillions of dollars simply lying about, ready for the spending, when it came to invading and occupying Iraq in search of the still-missing weapons of mass destruction?
But the real source for our shameful and embarrassing health care debacle is not financial: we are the problem—us. Thirty years of stock market “casino capitalism” has turned hardheartedness into a cultural virtue. We are not the “kinder, gentler nation” that we once were. Today we view health care as a kind of human shipwreck: every man for himself. And plenty “jump ship.” The latest figures show that nearly 700,000 Americans a year are “medical tourists,” people who seek primary medical care in other nations outside the United States.
The uniquely American idea that access to health care is linked to the Protestant work ethic—he who does not work or is unsuccessful will neither eat nor enjoy good health—is a relic of another outdated fantasy: that our government should remain “limited,” a kind of “night watchman” or “referee” callously indifferent to the health and welfare of its citizens. Such romantic political fairytales, if they were ever true, belong to the pre-FDR era of silk stocking capitalist tycoons and Herbert Hoover, not to a modern nation that takes its legitimacy from—and bears a responsibility to—“We the People.”
America needs health care reform now. Fulfilling the dream of universal coverage is not just a question of helping the 47 million uninsured: we need health care reform because our claim to be a “good” or “exceptional” nation rings hollow in light of this blemish on our national record. We need to pass comprehensive health care reform, to include the “public option,” to prove once more, as Ezra Pound wrote long ago, that Americans “are the most generous people in the world.”
So, America, as the old song goes, don’t “cry for Argentina.” Argentina—indeed the world—is crying for us.