Personnes du Troisième Age

As I've said before, I'm not attempting to channel Belisarius. But I think he might approve of the French government's attempt to do something about the vulnerability of “people of the third age”, nearly fifteen thousand of whom appear to have died last year as a result of an unusually hot summer.

The program, according to Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor,

…will be financed by a special 0.3 percent levy on all businesses, estimated as the value of a day's work, so that workers will give their labor for a day, and employers will donate their profits.

Of course there are several controversial aspects. Some people have called the program “compulsory charity”. It has been pointed out that abandoning the government's proposed tax cut would make these sacrifices unnecessary (and everyone knows that such a program in the US would be financed entirely by workers, with business nominally contributing but actually excused). Then, of course, there's the complaint of “too little, too late”.

No doubt there's truth in these and other complaints. No doubt there is a large element of politics in the proposal of Prime Minister Raffarin, who, according to the AP, “has been plummeting in the polls”, and needs an issue with traction. No doubt the program will be managed inefficiently, as government programs are. Probably there will even be a certain amount of corruption in a program slated to spend nearly $11 billion (US) over four and a half years.

None of this, in my opinion, invalidates the attempt. The French are reportedly shocked that the state-run health service, of which they are justly proud, performed so badly. No one quoted in the articles I read was against the program to improve the available services; the questions and complaints were about how to share the burden of paying for it.

I contrast this with the attitude of many working Americans, adopted nearly word for word from insurance-company propaganda: “Do you want government running your health care?”. My answer is this: health care will be administered either by government or by insurance companies. Government is bureaucratic, inefficient, and often inept. Corporations have a clear incentive to deny coverage: their profit margins increase. I'm far from trusting government to do the right thing, and I don't believe that corporations are inherently evil. Still, corporations as currently constituted are inherently amoral, and amoral philosophies often lead to immoral actions.

But of course the most important issue is accountability. Corporations have none. Occasionally some corporate honcho or team thereof will be called to account by shareholders, but this is extremely rare, and generally concerned purely with financial issues internal to the company. Critics claim, accurately, that government is increasingly unresponsive, but they sometimes fail to mention the two main reasons:

  • Business is constantly working to undermine government, the only force capable of opposing and restricting it
  • Most people in the US don't vote

The only way to solve the first problem is to redefine the nature of corporations. But the second problem is easier to address: we, the citizens of the US, could pick a strategy and start voting. Naturally I think the strategy I recommend is a good one; put simply, vote for what you believe in, regardless of whether you think it will win, and over time you'll get some of what you want. But the choice of strategy is far less important than the act of casting a ballot.

If you want to “shake things up”, to “send them a message”, do what both parties are afraid of: vote, and encourage your family and friends to do the same. Neither major party has been enthusiastic about making it easier to register (though there are honorable exceptions among individuals in both parties). In general, both parties try to get out the vote among their faithful, but they don't really cotton to the idea of a major increase in the ranks of voters, because they're afraid of what that might mean. Voting will certainly not fix everything. But by voting we can choose to make government accountable. It's a far bigger task to pin accountability on corporations, especially if, like insurance companies, they're exempt from many anti-trust regulations.

I'd rather have my health care administered by bureaucracy than by the profit motive. I'm open to considering other options, but I expect that, whatever my list of options, profit motive will be near the bottom.

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