Janis Joplin Was Wrong
Only once did The Fabulous Wife and I meet the son of my first-cousin-once-removed’s third husband (got that?). But it was enlightening. The third husband, raised in a rural Texas house welded from two railroad cars, was a right-wing populist who injected snide political comments into conversations. The Fabulous Wife and I let such remarks pass; calling him out wouldn’t change his mind, just raise tensions. Third husband’s son, however, knew how to stand up to his dad without stoking negativity. His chief tools were humor and affection — but he also could turn his dad’s arguments on their head.
Third husband was grousing about the Democrats’ then-unrealized dream of national health insurance, invoking all the usual dittohead talking points: socialism this, nanny state that, security is the enemy of freedom and America is all about freedom, blah blah. His son countered with the example of his Israeli girlfriend. In America, he said, health insurance is tied to your job, so unless you can get equivalent coverage in another job, your workplace mobility is limited, whereas in Israel, which has national health insurance, you have more freedom to shape your life, because you can leave a bad job, work part-time, take time off if you need to, or move from one town to another without securing a job first (as his girlfriend had just done) and never have to worry about getting hurt or sick.
Third husband hadn’t looked at it that way. Shut him right up.
The Fabulous Wife and I hadn’t looked at it that way either, and after the visit we wondered why the Democrats hadn’t framed national health care in those terms. Even when Obama shed a decade of his life’s blood pushing through the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats didn’t argue that national health care increased freedom. (Perhaps because the version of national health care they enacted still limits freedom; I asked a couple of people my age why they haven’t retired yet, and both said “I can’t because my health insurance ends when my job does, so I have to stay on until I’m old enough for Medicare.”) Instead, the Democrats claimed the ACA would reduce the federal deficit (Obama in 2009: “our health care system is placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers”) and was morally imperative.
Once I became a risk manager I saw more clearly how freeing insurance can be. It reduces the likelihood of catastrophic failure, which emboldens people to take chances — promoting entrepreneurial behavior that benefits the economy. One (semi-entrepreneurial) example is epidemiologists in UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health who study diseases like ebola. After the university implemented a travel insurance program that provided emergency medical benefits and safe return home, the epidemiologists felt more comfortable going where the outbreak was, which not only enhanced their academic freedom, but helped UC Berkeley remain the top public research university in the world and, more importantly, increased the world’s knowledge of lurking pathogens that make coronavirus look like a zit.
So imagine my gratitude when Lawrence Glickman, a history professor at Cornell, finally said it! In a recent Atlantic Monthly article called “The Conservative Campaign Against Safety” (mainly about right-wingers’ eagerness to sacrifice lives for the economy) he defended Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — particularly freedom from want — with the assertion that “The lesson of the New Deal was that freedom and security were not just compatible but conjoined.” Exactly.
Not to pick a fight with the great philosopher Janis Joplin, but having nothing left to lose is freedom only of a sort; the better word for that is desperation. True freedom springs from the opportunity to choose among a number of appealing options. Health care for all, whatever form it takes, would help Americans do that, which puts it squarely in the national tradition.
Now, if only the Democrats would make that case.
(Note: The Fabulous Wife takes issue with the title of this post because Kris Kristofferson wrote Me and Bobby McGee — Janis Joplin merely made the song famous. As usual when we disagree, I reserve the right to be wrong.)