Friday, October 06, 2006

A continuing series of rejections

Much to blog about here, including more than a month's worth of agility adventures, but I have too much work and too many unpaid bills to be able to indulge my inner blogger. So Im going to cheat and reprint things I've written in the past. Well, "reprint" is not quite the right expression, since they were never printed to begin with: I'm going to post the many letters I've sent to the New York Times over the years that were never published. (After a while you might notice a recurrent theme, to wit: Slovenia good, America bad.)

Today's letter is about health care. It was written and sent on February 1 of this year, in response to a January 31 column by Nicholas Kristof entitled Take a Hike (link provided, but unfortunately it's only accessible to paying subscribers). In this article Kristof proposes to solve America's health care crisis by banning French fries and other fatty junk foods from the schools and declaring a general "War on Sloth." In the penultimate paragraph, he concedes that what America really needs is a universal single-payer health care system, but he's not even going to go there, because it's "not politically feasible." Odd, that, because every other developed democracy has managed to provide its citizens with comprehensive high-quality health care at substantially lower cost than the United States, and the health outcomes of these nations tend to be more favorable than those of the U.S. Moreover, a strong majority of Americans favor such a system. So for anyone naive enough to believe that the American political and economic system is rational, efficient, and responsive to the needs and preferences of voters, please note that "feasible" in American political terms means "not vehemently opposed by the powerful monied lobbies that run things in Washington, D.C." Which rules out universal single-payer health care, because, while it would deliver better care to more people at lower cost, it would cut into the profits of insurance, pharmaceutical, and other corporations in the health care industry. It is thus by definition "not feasible."

What really irked me into responding to Kristof's column was his denigration of Slovenia. It is typical of many Americans to assume that the U.S.A. is the best country in the world in every possible way, and to express shock when they stumble across rude facts which puncture their smug illusions about American superiority. They are particularly disturbed when "countries like Slovenia" turn out to do things much better than their country does. Slovenia, you see, is supposed to be some less evolved primitive nation form just recently emerged from the primordial slime of communism, and supposedly needing a generation or more to "catch up" with the more advanced and enlightened nations of the capitalist West, in particular the U.S. This impression is not helped, to say the least, by the public actions and statements of Slovene politicians like Foreign Minister Dimitri Rupel, who seems to have made a career out of going round groveling before western and especially American leaders, apologizing for Slovenia's backwardness and inferiority because, well, you know, that damned socialist legacy and communist yoke held Slovenia back during the postwar years.

I have a growing file called "countries like Slovenia" with examples of this mentality. (And an even fatter file on Rupel and his exasperating anti-Slovene acts.) Material for a future blog post perhaps (once those bills are paid); Kontra! has already posted on a couple of such incidents, regarding evolution (similar post in English at Glory of Carniola) and information technology infrastucture. In each case American commentators are scandalized because Slovenia ranks higher than the United States.

As was Kristof, when he learned that Slovenia's health care is better than what Americans get. Which prompted me to write this letter:

To the editor:

Mr. Kristof finds it “scandalous that babies born in the United States are less likely to survive their first year than babies born in Slovenia.” Why is he not equally scandalized that the United States is bested by Sweden, Finland, and France—or Cuba, South Korea, and Macau?

In June, 1993 I traveled from Slovenia to Washington, D.C. for a reunion of North American Rhodes Scholars, where there was elation over the Clinton administration’s recent passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, obligating employers with more than fifty employees to grant unpaid leave for up to twelve weeks for the birth of a child or other family medical event.

I remember feeling sorry for my American peers, having to start families and bring up children in such a backward and underdeveloped country, and thankful that I’d had the good luck, or the good sense, to give birth in a country like Slovenia, whose system of national insurance covered my family’s medical expenses in full and provided a year’s paid parental leave after the birth of my child.

Mr. Kristof goes on to claim that universal health care, which all other industrialized democracies in the world (not to mention quite a few less developed ones) manage to provide to their citizens, is “not politically feasible” in the United States. Yet a majority of Americans favor such a system, as do many health care professionals, because it produces better results at lower cost. If by “not politically feasible” Mr. Kristof means that the decisions of Americans’ elected representatives in Washington are more influenced by the lobbyists and political donors that profit from the current inefficient system than they are by the needs of their consituents and the findings of independent studies, why doesn’t he just come out and say so?

Mr. Kristof may rest easier, knowing that Slovenia’s health outcomes will soon be at least as bad as those of the United States: the current Slovene government and its (U.S.-trained) neoliberal economic advisors are determined to privatize more of the Slovene economy, including the health care sector, thereby ensuring that in Slovenia, too, private greed will prevail over the public interest—just as it does in the United States.

True to form, the letter went unpublished. This time I didn't even try to stay under the suggested 150-word limit, since I knew from long experience they wouldn't publish me in any case. There's a lot more to say on the topic than what I wrote above, and I'll say it. But not today. It's a sunny day in the cusp between summer and fall, in a region between the Mediterranean and the Alps. And it's my birthday. I think I'd rather spend it doing things outside.


Blogger Lilit said...

Happy birthday! :)

9:21 PM, October 06, 2006  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Maybe he misses the Cold War era...I sometimes write directly to columnists and reporters now. I think they do read their mail, even if they don't reply.

2:04 AM, October 07, 2006  
Blogger Jean said...

Lilit, thanks for the good wishes. As it happens, my car broke down for the occasion. Completely dead. Not the battery, because jumper cables didn't help. Can't do anything about it until Monday morning when my mechanic comes to work. I just hope I have a working car by the weekend, or I'll have to miss Naklo!

Elizabeth, yes, I wrote Kristof direct on this one, too, and sent him a copy of the letter. He didn't deign to answer. Though he did post this comment in his blog:

"January 31, 2006, 3:00 pm
Apologies to Slovenia

In today’s column, I tried to dramatize the problem’s with America’s health care system by saying that it was scandalous that an American baby is less likely to survive its first year than a Slovenian baby. Alas, Slovenians are offended that I think this is scandalous. They think it stands to reason that Slovenia should be superior to the U.S. in this regard.

I want to be nice to Slovenia, because its president is a leader in pushing for more action on Darfur. And, for the record, Slovenia’s infant mortality rate is not just a wee bit better than America’s — it’s about half our rate.

Some people have argued that America has a lousy infant mortality rate simply because we keep better records than other countries, and our hospitals are more punctilious about recording an infant who dies immediately after birth as a death, rather than just a stillbirth. That’s possible. But our maternal mortality rates are 50 percent higher than Europe’s, and it’s harder to explain that as a record-keeping problem. There’s such thing as still-motherhood. Plus there’s a directional problem — in the last couple of years our infant mortality rate has edged up, after 40 years of going down. That’s pretty hard to explain, except to say that we have a crisis in health care.

Hmmm. Considering that Slovenia arguably has better medical stats than we do, and its president is active on Darfur and ours isn’t, and its president actually has better command of English than our own — how about if we switch presidents with Slovenia?"

But forget that last suggestion--there's no way we'd take Bush over here! Even if Drnovsek is getting a little odd and New Age-y in his old age.

10:31 AM, October 07, 2006  
Blogger abaris said...

Best wishes from me, Jean. :) I want you to know that I admire you very much for the depth of your knowledge and your unrelenting activism. It's really inspiring - so keep up the good work.

The NYT exchange reminds me of an insightful commentary by Bill Maher on his show recently:

Thanks for mentioning my humble blog, btw.

10:06 PM, November 04, 2006  

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