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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Where it all comes together
The emperor's got no clothes.  That's the essence of the muttering that's gradually getting louder on the subject of the new Massachusetts health insurance bill.  This is the same bill that occasioned a fine round of back-patting among the politicians on Beacon Hill and a great deal of nationwide admiration from people who really ought to know better.  But not many people are reading the fine print yet, at least not outside the Bay State, because everybody wants to believe that there's a solution to the so-called "health care crisis", and that it can be accomplished with the stroke of a pen.
Well, no.  What actually happened was more like this: people, from welfare moms to soccer moms and from yuppies to oldsters, expressed in various ways that they wanted to be able to get health care and still be able to eat and pay the rent.  But in a grownup game of Telephone, the policymakers heard this talk through their set of filters and assumptions.  Specifically, they heard the words "health care" as "health insurance".  Thus, we here in Massachusetts now have a law that states that every resident of the Commonwealth must have health insurance by this coming July.  This can happen in one of three ways:
  1. Got an employer who's willing to provide you with insurance?  Great!  You're all set!  Until your employer decides not to offer it any more, that is...but we're not thinking about that, la la la...
  2. Dirt poor?  You get your insurance for free!  Well, that's the plan, anyway.  We're really unclear on how we're going to pay for that, but, er...
  3. In neither of those two categories?  Like, you're self-employed, or you're a temporary worker or a seasonal worker or a farmer or a stay-at-home parent or you work for an employer who just doesn't provide insurance?  Then you get to buy your own!!!  Oh, don't worry, it'll be cheap, only about $200 a, well, maybe more like $325...

For fairly obvious reasons, there are more and more people in all three categories (but especially category 3) who are looking at this new suit of clothes and seeing more holes than fabric.  There are no requirements for employers to offer insurance, and minimal sanctions if they don't (an annual penalty per worker that amounts to less than one month's premium, and plenty of exemptions even for do the math).  There are no guarantees of funding to cover the premiums of low-income people.  And there are no cost ceiling guarantees on the premiums to be paid by those who must purchase their own insurance.  And what happens if you tell them to go fuck themselves?  You don't get a personal exemption on your taxes any more, that's what.

That was the background of a conversation I had  with my friend Rob, whose attitude toward this new law pretty much matches mine.  At the time, neither of us had insurance; both of us cope the same way, by staying healthy as much as possible and using the services of a local practice of very principled health care providers when we need them.  All their services are on a "pay what you can" basis, which isn't always cash; out of necessity, we have a bit of a barter economy here, and rumor has it they'll take a bushel of corn if that's what you've got to give. 

The question of why I would want health insurance when I can get all the health care I need for about $100 a year is now irrelevant.  It's not my choice any more: I'll buy their insurance or I'll pay their penalty.  But when I spoke to Rob about needing to do something to head this juggernaut off, he waved it away.  "I figure it isn't gonna matter," he said. "It's all coming together in the next few years.  There are just too many things, energy costs, global warming, this health care crisis, the war.  It's all converging."

I knew what he meant.  You've heard the old expression about shit hitting a fan, right?  Living in the United States with an unanaesthetized mind nowadays means living with the sense of standing at the common aiming point of multiple industrial-strength floor fans, into which a whole lot of people in expensive suits are hurling buckets full of fresh steaming crap.  Just when you think you've figured out how to dodge one spray, here comes another; just when you think one source has died down, it ramps up again.  I don't really blame anyone for tuning out under such circumstances, because it seems impossible to find a solution.

But a solution does have to be found, individually if not collectively, because the things we're talking about aren't luxuries.  You can buy a lot of stuff for cheap in the United States, cheap consumer crap that's made overseas by workers who can most charitably be described as underpaid.  But some of the things that are most essential to our basic survival, such as housing and health care, are becoming expensive to the point of unaffordability.  Other things nearly as fundamental, such as education, are becoming pricey too; nor do you have to be the proverbial weatherman to see things like food, water, peace, and freedom of expression following behind.

How did we get to such a state?  Misplaced priorities, mostly.  We take the basics for granted, forgetting that peace and prosperity don't just happen by accident.  And then we get greedy.  If I buy a ham from a local smokehouse, I'll pay about $3.50 to $4 a pound for it; if I buy one in a supermarket, I could get it under $2 a pound on sale.  Of course, it's not the same product, but so what?  It's a ham, for half the price.  And that's where the greed kicks in, because people don't look at the price differential and say, "Wow!  I can put the money I save into my rainy-day fund/kid's college fund/retirement account/home improvements!"  Instead, the money gets spent on cheap shiny junk.  Video games.  DVDs and DVD players.  Pet psychologists.  Lexus SUVs. 

So, people get greedy, and then they get addicted -- and, worse, they lose their ability to distinguish between luxuries and necessities.  And that's when you're in real trouble.  Like Aesop's story of the little boy with the jar of filberts, you're always grabbing for more more more.  But how can you hang onto what really matters if your hands are full of crap?

Back to my convo with Rob.  "It's all coming together": that was the phrase that stuck in my mind.  Most times, when I hear people say something like that, I tend to dismiss it as seeing connections and causation where none exists, Jupiter aligning with Mars, ley lines, solar storms, signs and portents.  Or it can be a matter of seeing oneself as the fulcrum of events.  If A and B and C are going on in your life all at once, there's a certain temptation to believe they're all connected, because it's All About You.  But Rob's not either of those types: he's levelheaded, not given to making monsters out of shadows, but also not given to denying what's real (global warming?  what global warming?). 

"It's all coming together," he said.  "We're all going to be living a lot more locally."  I think he's right.  The global economy fails the definition of sustainability.  It's more like someone running downhill: after a short time, you can't really stop, and the longer you go on, the less likely you are to be able to recover from a stumble.  But everything looks fine as long as you like the direction you're going in, and as long as your legs can keep up.  When the inevitable stumble comes, we will be forced to live more locally.  Perhaps it will be bulk agricultural exports becoming less available due to changes in climate or soil exhaustion/toxicity.  Maybe it will be political or social upheaval that cuts the developed countries off from sources of petroleum, in a much more radical way than the current disruptions.  Or perhaps it will be rising costs of the most basic needs, such that people are forced once more into an awareness of what are the true necessities, and luxuries are no longer affordable.  When you cannot afford a fifty-mile commute, a college education, a health insurance premium, a luxury apartment, milk that is produced and packaged on the other side of the country, you will have to get your needs met, more modestly and more locally.

So that's the purpose of this blog, in big ways and small.  The global economy has made the distances between continents smaller.  In fact, I'd say that we're on course to the continents colliding.  You can pretend it's not happening, or you can get ready for the bump.  I am not a survivalist.  Survivalists use their credit cards to order weapons and freeze-dried crap off websites so that they can hunker in the bunker when the shit hits the fan and shoot at the ravening hordes who want to take their stuff.  I continue to hope that the bump can be a gentle one, but the only chance of that is to start making some changes now, with the goal of creating more sustainable communities -- the kind that can survive the bump.

2:59 pm est


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