"I am not a friend to a very energetic government," Thomas Jefferson once
sighed. It's a feeling most of us get at times.
It's hard to be a friend to government when you read that the CIA wants
an additional $55 million from our pockets to buy back the Stinger anti-aircraft
missiles it gave free of charge to the Afghan rebels back in the 80s.
And it's hard to be a pal to a government that rigs SDI tests to get a
gullible Congress to pour more of our money down the dry hole of the Gipper's
Star Wars fantasy.
Nevertheless, I get the fantods from an anti-government proposal being
by Clinton's Federal Highway Administration. It would turn over operation of
part of the interstate highway to private business.
"We have got to get the private sector involved in financing highway
improvements," an FHA honcho says.
That means, I'm afraid, running the interstate on a "business-like" basis
toll gates charging what the traffic will bear, potholes praised as evidence the
roadway is "pre-tested," green-light specials for the stretch between Big Springs
and Julesburg. In short, hucksterism on I-80.
No, thanks. I'll get my greed and incompetence from rascals we can
throw out of office every once in a while.
In minor matters of tradebetter mousetraps, widgets with built-in
obsolescence, new and improved bellywashI'm willing to let unfettered
capitalism have its profiteering way with us. Not because I'm convinced it's for
the common weal, but because it's sometimes amusing.
Consider the marketing scheme hatched up last month by deep thinkers
for the UK division of the Hoover vacuum cleaner company owned by the
Maytag Corp., right next door in Newton, Iowa. They offered two free
international airline tickets to anyone who'd buy a new Hoover.
They overlooked a minor detail: two international airline tickets cost
more than most new Hoovers.
The result was that Hoover had to set aside $30 million to pay for 103,000
UK customers' flights to the US and Europe, and for an "unspecified number"
who will take off before the promotion ends in April.
So being a friend to very energetic free enterprise may be as hazardous as
being a friend to very energetic government. I don't trust an unregulated free
market in matters much more important than vacuum cleaners.
Health care comes to mind.
Since the Clintons' proposal to revamp the system, we've been told by the
free market True Believersthose who see the economy as a theological question
, who see the invisible hand of free enterprise as an appendage of Godthat the
health system we've got isn't broke so we shouldn't fix it. When you're a free
enterprise fundamentalist, the assumption is that anything growing out of free
enterprise is, by definition, the best of all possible systems and not to be tinkered
The Truth, Mainly
There's a touching ideological purity to that position, but it ignores the
We've all seen the numbers by now that show how the invisible hand has
goosed us into spending a larger percentage of our gross domestic product on
health care than other countries doand getting less to show for it.
And we can all tell stories that show the system isn't working. Wait a
minute with yours while I tell mine:
A friend in Colorado had a hip replaced this summer. Because she
recently got a new job and new medical insurance, she discovered that anything
relating to her pre-existing arthritusincluding her bad hipisn't covered by her
new policy. So she had to come up with $35,000 to pay the bill.
If you tell her the system is working, it makes her cranky.
Another Colorado story: Tom Levin, chief executive of Blue Cross-Blue
Shield out there, was fired from his $575,000 job this summer because the state
insurance commissioner concluded the Blues were overcharging on premiums,
making risky loans to Blues in other states, paying excessive executive salaries
and benefits, and using questionable bookkeeping practices.
You might think that Mr. Levin could have saved enough from his
$575,000 annual salary to tide him over until he could find something else in the
help wanted ads, but the Blue Cross-Blue Shield board of directors gave the poor
guy $1.5 million severance pay. Enough to cover about 43 hip replacements
should he need them.
He probably thinks the health care system works just fine, thank you.
A long time ago we decided that universal education was too important
to be left to the free market. Forty years ago, we decided that even an interstate
highway was too important for the invisible hand to produce. Is it too much to
hope that we're about to decide that ideological purity is less important than a
health care system that works for all of us?
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.