May 17, 2021
The COVID pandemic called into question many of the deeply held, foundational beliefs of twenty-first century capitalism. “Universal truths” like the efficacy of just-in-time production, the sanctity of fiscal restraint, the necessity of balanced budgets, and the sin of direct cash handouts were either shattered or unceremoniously discarded. For those able to think beyond the reformist box, the global pandemic challenged the very legitimacy of capitalism.
But perhaps the greatest myth-busting consequence of COVID was the mirror it held up to the US healthcare system or, more accurately, the US health consumer/insurance industry.
Of course, most US citizens have long expressed a preference, when properly asked, for a universal system shorn of private insurance, like the original Medicare or a publicly financed, executed, and administered system like the Veterans Administration healthcare system.
It is no secret that, despite widespread support, the US public has been denied its choice by politicians shamefully influenced by the campaign contributions, the intense lobbying, and out-and-out graft of profit and “non-profit” networks, insurance and drug companies, and the political heft of others parasitic on a profit-driven system. While the public surely deserves better, it is mired in a system of increasing complexity, blind, confusing choices, and unfettered cost increases.
The hucksters of private initiative, competition, and choice never explain that profit-seeking always produces and reproduces deception, consumer uncertainty, and unequal outcomes. They have argued persistently against reform because it would reduce the choices available to the “consumer.” This free-market hocus-pocus remains the default argument of the healthcare industry. But they curiously abandon their commitment to real choice when it comes to the Medicare-for-All option. That choice is foreclosed.
So, when the COVID virus struck the US, the ensuing rapid spread of cases, the shortage of hospital facilities, staff, and equipment, and the obscene rise in deaths exposed the lack of a comprehensive, universal, people-first public health system. States scrambled to find individual solutions to common problems; political calculations overrode human suffering; finger-pointing abounded; and states, municipalities, and systems hoarded scarce resources. Waves of new infections overwhelmed the patchwork, disorganized, and incoherent free-market approach.
Thus, a great opportunity was presented by the catastrophic COVID response of the richest country in the world, an opportunity to popularize the advantages of alternatives to an unpopular, failed system clung to by corrupted politicians and profiteers.
Indeed, many in the single-payer, Medicare-for-All movement seized this tragic, but instructive moment. Many wrote, spoke, and organized around the devastating failure of private, competitive, profit-driven healthcare options. If anything good could come out of an embarrassing systemic failure, they argued, it would be that it underscored the need to move to a national system of universal and comprehensive healthcare delivered equally to all.
But political opportunism infected far too many who saw a chance to link the COVID catastrophe solely to Donald Trump, rather than lay it at the doorstep of a failed system. Of course, it is possible to heap some blame, a lot of blame on Donald Trump while indicting the system as well. Unfortunately, the crushing imperatives of the two-party system and the emotionally unhinged determination to eliminate Trump at all costs came at a price: the systemic failure of the existing, profit-before-people model and its needed replacement were pushed to the neverland of empty promises. The failure to combat COVID was firmly attached to Donald Trump.
Blind loyalty to the Democratic Party has overshadowed any commitment to principle. Similarly, the fetish of personality, of form over content, has disabled the advancement of issues. Insofar as Trump was a creep, it was more important to heap blame on him for any and every failure of the system. The movement for single-payer was one of many casualties of this everything-and-everybody up against Trump.
It is a lazy opportunism to attribute long-standing policy failures, like that of the Rube Goldberg US healthcare system, solely to an unhinged blowhard like Donald Trump. A conventional Democrat (like Andrew Cuomo) would (and did!) fare little better within the disastrous US model.
Thus, any momentum gained by the COVID catastrophe’s discrediting of the US health-service industry is lost to the exigencies of the Democratic Party. We’ve gotten rid of Trump, but we’re stuck with a President who has declared that there will be no change to a universal system on his watch.
Meanwhile, capitalism’s champions are tirelessly carrying forward the fight to defend the for-profit system. Niall Ferguson, the popular conservative public intellectual known for his staunch defense of the British Empire, has written an essay published in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that had only the politicians taken the same tact as their counterparts did with the 1957 “Asian” flu, the US would have had far better outcomes (Ferguson is famous or infamous for his counterfactual histories).
Buried among a barrage of seemingly disconnected data and slippery comparisons is his thesis: “In 1957, the U.S. rose to the challenge of the ‘Asian flu’ with stoicism and a high tolerance for risk, offering a stark contrast with our approach to Covid-19.”
Ferguson’s recipe of benign neglect (“Eisenhower did not declare a state emergency. There were no state lockdowns and… school closures.”) stands in stark contrast to his detailed touting of the speedy, efficient development of a vaccine in 1957. He feels no logical discomfort in hailing personal risk-taking and institutional diffidence while, at the same time, praising the government’s speedy, effective vaccine development as significant for success in 1957!
We learn that the hospital-beds-per-thousand-people ratio was at an all-time high (9.18 per 1000) in 1957, over three times greater than in 2020. Ferguson also credits this far-greater capacity decisively to the ‘success’ of 1957. Yet he surely knows that it was his beloved Thatcher (and Reagan) who fueled the market fundamentalism behind the shrinkage of available hospital beds in the interest of capitalist ‘efficiency’ and profit.
Bathed in nostalgia for the fifties (Elvis, teenage boomer affluence, the Beat generation), Ferguson constructs an idealized world of minimal government, stolid Republican leadership, Cold War smugness, and ethnic hierarchies fearlessly confronting a pandemic and offering an alternative (counterfactually) to our own COVID experience.
If Ferguson’s fantastic, idealized model for confronting a deadly pandemic is the best that the left has to fear, then it has little to fear from his conservative ideological corner.
But the opportunism of the center-left is a huge barrier to securing a rational, universal healthcare system. Indeed, crass calculation infects the behavior of the ‘practical’ left on all issues. By answering every call of the Democratic establishment to put aside a burning issue in order to secure the victory of a ‘winning’ candidate, they guarantee that the burning issue becomes a forgotten issue.
Understandably, mass sentiment may run counter to majority interests, given that the masses are constantly bombarded with fast-food news and conformist commentary on media networks. But there is nothing understandable about liberals and ersatz socialists who willingly defer pressing vital initiatives to the service of a soulless Democratic Party.
With Trump, it was the politics of tone that captured the attention of the center-left and drew its scorn. Beneath his outrageousness and his dismissive violation of political etiquette, there was little more than another pamper-the-rich tax scheme and bilious rhetoric. The ship of state continued on course, serving the rich and powerful, overfeeding the military-industrial complex, and terrorizing any country that defies US dominance.
And now with Biden, the ship continues with a new pilot, but essentially on the same course. Certainly, there are adjustments, less bluster, less vulgarity. But that only boosts the politics of tone.
Yes, Biden has projected some ambitious, useful, and large-scale initiatives, but with the condition that he must achieve agreement from some of his Republican counterparts. The belief in such a rapprochement is either naive or a calculated ruse. As fear of inflation mounts, the retreat from ambitious action will accelerate. Biden is the new Obama, not the new FDR.
Allowing the Democratic Party to hold good, power-shifting, life-changing initiatives hostage to electoral success is a strategy that has not and will not work for the good of the people.
History teaches many lessons; we can’t afford to continue to ignore them.
Greg Godels can also be read at ZZ’s blog (zzs-blg.blogspot.com)