February 17, 2001
As the old folk singer once said,
The most dangerous political force
In America today is a
Long memory" . . .
J. Quinn Brisben. "In Memoriam Gene de Grusson."
In many countries, life is a cycle of violence and retaliation because their people never forget, and never forgive, a single thing that ever happened to them. In America we have the opposite problem; we have virtually no memory of our history.
The good thing about that is that it enables us to put aside past enmities fairly easily, especially if our side won; very few descendants of Union soldiers resent southerners, though a fair amount of southerners seem to still resent Yankees. We can walk up to the edge of the precipice of hatred -- blacks against whites at Central High School in Little Rock, religious activists against the teachers in Kanawha County, Republicans versus Democrats during the impeachment -- and then back away from the conflict and somehow reknit community bonds and rebuild a peaceful coexistence. It's a talent the Israelis and Palestinians could use.
The bad thing about it is that if we don't remember our history, we have no defense when people misrepresent and distort it. We risk repeating our old mistakes over and over.
Take social security, for instance. When the market was going up and up, and even the sky seemed way too low a limit, we started buying the idea that maybe social security WAS a really bum deal, that maybe we could build a MUCH bigger retirement fund by investing our social security contributions ourselves. Maybe social security WAS just another manifestation of the nanny state, taking care of us against our will and even against our best interests; maybe we did have the right, even the duty, to be responsible for our own retirement investments.
What nobody was remembering was the reason that social security was invented in the first place: the fact that hundreds of thousands of people who had in fact saved prudently for their own retirement, lost every cent when the stock market crashed in 1929. One key difference between the stock market and social security was that the stock market offered hope while the government gave you a guarantee.
Another thing the social security-reform crowd neglect to mention is that social security was never just a retirement program. It provides you with an income if you become disabled, and if you die while your children are young it guarantees an income for each child until the age of eighteen. No stock market account makes any such promise.
However, in order for social security to pay out those benefits, people have to keep paying in to it. If that revenue stream is diverted into the individual retirement accounts social security reformers advocate, the system will have to draw on general tax revenue to meet its obligations. That will make social security seem more like a burden incurred by the feckless than a benefit people have earned by their contributions and by social contract. If anything endangers the future of social security, it is that belief.
Another key piece of rewritten history that we seem to have bought into is our current concept of health. We apparently believe that health is something we as individuals pay doctors and hospitals to supply. We attribute our ever-expanding life spans to all our new drugs and medical technologies.
We have forgotten the reasons why our public health laws and agencies exist. We've forgotten about The Jungle, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the polio epidemic. The big jumps in life spans occurred early in the 20th century, the result not of doctors but of local and federal government agencies that built better sewers and water treatment plants, inspected meat, wrote stringent fire codes for buildings, developed emergency medical systems amd trauma centers, and sponsored the research that created antibiotics and vaccines against polio and measles and hepatitis.
The best epidemiologists in the world worked for the CDC, which along with local and state public health agencies monitored incipient epidemics and watched for new infectious agents like Ebola. In the absence of a universal health care system, public hospitals and teaching hospitals met the health needs of the poor, their emergency rooms becoming, in effect, public clinics.
All that government investment in the health infrastructure has been undercut by years of neglect. People have died from drinking their water, because sewage and water treatment systems in many towns are feeling the strain of age and lack of maintenance, but too expensive to be easily rebuilt. People have died from eating hamburgers because there are too few meat inspectors and their inspection techniques have not adapted to deal with dangerous pathogens that are immune to antibiotics.
Many public hospitals and small rural hospitals have been forced to close because they've been hit with the double whammy of chronic underfunding and Congress' refusal to adequately reimburse them for their care of Medicaid and Medicare patients. Other hospitals, once part of the trauma care network, have been bought by healthcare corporations that have been known to transport uninsured emergency-room patients to public hospitals even though they were in cardiac arrest or bleeding to death. The number of available beds in hospitals has been so greatly reduced that doctors say they wouldn't even be able to handle a sizable flu epidemic, let alone a smallpox or anthrax attack.
Congress, which may have the shortest memory of all, was horrified that the CDC didn't seem to have up to date information about anthrax; its members failed to make any connection between their own sawing at the CDC's budget and its lack of sufficient staff and equipment.
Because we don't understand our history, we have been sold some convenient myths that allow the government to cut back funding on public health and the social safety net. We have been taught that government is an impediment, and that taxes are an illegitimate burden on business. We have been told that it is up to us to guarantee our own personal health and security, and if we fail (or our employer or investments fail), well, that's the glory of capitalism. And we've been assured that society has no stake in the survival of the less fortunate.
There's just one little problem with that.
When vaccination rates go down, we are all at risk of infectious disease. When emergency rooms aren't available, any of us may be in that ambulance. When the water and meat aren't safe, any of us may die. If social security isn't there when our investments go south, our own retirement may be at risk; if it isn't there when something happens to us, our own children may be the ones not getting the support they were promised.
We are all sharing this lifeboat.
I know that. You know that. Why doesn't Congress? If it wants to cut the budget, it shouldn't do it by cutting basic protections for public health and safety. It should start by cutting things that don't matter as much. Like, for instance, their automatic annual pay increases, or their office budgets, or yet another monument to Sen. Byrd in West Virginia. They could hire fewer lawyers.
It might not be a bad idea, though, to hire a historian to remind them why the laws and agencies they're trying to kill came to exist in the first place. After all, we have this memory problem.
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