human behavior

American Values

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Australian Culture & Politics by humanb on November 26, 2009

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, 1883

On health care reform, David Brooks gets to the heart of the matter in The Values Question. The health care debate is not a policy argument. The devil’s not in the details. It’s a debate about the values of a nation.

During the first many decades of this nation’s existence, the United States was a wide-open, dynamic country with a rapidly expanding economy. It was also a country that tolerated a large amount of cruelty and pain — poor people living in misery, workers suffering from exploitation.

Over the years, Americans decided they wanted a little more safety and security. This is what happens as nations grow wealthier; they use money to buy civilization.

One one side of the debate are those most concerned about America’s economic vitality and competitiveness – those who can accept the hardship, suffering, sickness and even death of the unlucky in a free-market economy. These people value the initiative and luck of the individual and would like to see the nation thrive.

On the other side are those most concerned about the economic, physical and social health of the people who make up that nation. They see the fitness of the nation in the baseline well being of its citizens, and in the inherent decency and compassion of the nation’s policies. They want to live in an ethical and compassionate society at the possible expense of America’s economic supremacy.

No policy issue better reflects these opposing sides than health care reform.

The bottom line is that we face a brutal choice.

Reform would make us a more decent society, but also a less vibrant one. It would ease the anxiety of millions at the cost of future growth. It would heal a wound in the social fabric while piling another expensive and untouchable promise on top of the many such promises we’ve already made. America would be a less youthful, ragged and unforgiving nation, and a more middle-aged, civilized and sedate one.

We all have to decide what we want at this moment in history, vitality or security. We can debate this or that provision, but where we come down will depend on that moral preference. Don’t get stupefied by technical details. This debate is about values.

Brooks is a conservative – an astute, insightful, and perceptive one – who frequently betrays in his columns a fundamental preoccupation with human cognition, drives and behavior. He’s right about the true nature of this debate. He’s wrong, however, in assuming that making the compassionate and ethical choice requires a considerable sacrifice of American economic power.

I’m not an economist and neither is Brooks, and even the nation’s most respected economists can’t agree on what’s in the best economic interest of the country. So I won’t bicker about which government actions would yield the best economic outcome. I do argue however, that the best economic outcome can’t be measured purely in dollars and cents, and can’t be fully appreciated in the short term.

Every other Western industrialized nation has universal health care in some incarnation, and most manage to remain both economically competitive and socially equitable. Australia is one of the shining lights at the moment. This nation largely escaped the economic recession. Its citizens have enjoyed government-funded universal health care for the past 30 years and receive an average salary of $50+K per year.  University education rivals that of the United States and thanks to government subsidy, costs 1/5th of the cost.

The billions the Australian government pours into health care, education and various welfare programs for its people aren’t economic sacrifices that compromise its power and standing in the world. They’re investments in the long-term economic, social and political sustainability of this country. And they’re paying off. The greatest natural resource any country has, isn’t manufacturing, water, oil or minerals. It’s people. Healthy, educated, employed people leading productive lives in an equitable society.

Nurture them, and the nation wins.

From an email I just received from the First Lady of the United States:

Tomorrow, many of us will gather around the table with family and friends to give thanks over a feast of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy — and let’s not forget pumpkin pie!

But for some in this country, the feast will not be as bountiful.  In fact, it won’t be much of a feast at all.  Hunger is on the rise in America — hitting its highest levels in nearly 15 years.  A recent report released by the USDA reveals that in 2008 an estimated 1.1 million children were living in households that experienced hunger multiple times over the past year.

Is this what it means to be a superpower? Is this the standard of living in a first-world country? Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?

Does this reflect your values?

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