Meyerson: America Hates the Poor
Harold Meyerson thinks America is a very, very bad place.
The ‘Stuff Happens’ Presidency (WaPo, Sep. 7, A25)
We’re not number one. We’re not even close. By which measures, precisely, do we lead the world? Caring for our countrymen? You jest. A first-class physical infrastructure? Tell that to New Orleans. Throwing so much money at the rich that we’ve got nothing left over to promote the general welfare? Now you’re talking.
The problem goes beyond the fact that we can’t count on our government to be there for us in catastrophes. It’s that a can’t-do spirit, a shouldn’t-do spirit, guides the men who run the nation.
As a matter of social policy, the catastrophic lack of response in New Orleans is exceptional only in its scale and immediacy. When it comes to caring for our fellow countrymen, we all know that America has never ranked very high. We are, of course, the only democracy in the developed world that doesn’t offer health care to its citizens as a matter of right. We rank 34th among nations in infant mortality rates, behind such rival superpowers as Cyprus, Andorra and Brunei.
But these are chronic conditions, and even many of us who argue for universal health coverage have grown inured to that distinctly American indifference to the common good, to our radical lack of solidarity with our fellow citizens. Besides, the poor generally have the decency to die discreetly, and discretely — not conspicuously, not in droves. Come rain or come shine, we leave millions of beleaguered Americans to fend for themselves on a daily basis. It’s just a lot more noticeable in a horrific rain, and when the ordinary lack of access to medical care is augmented by an extraordinary lack of access to emergency services.
Even now, with bedraggled rescuers pulling decomposed bodies from the muck of New Orleans, Bill Frist, the moral cretin who runs the U.S. Senate, wanted its first order of business this week to be the permanent repeal of the estate tax, until the public outcry persuaded him to change course. The Republicans profess belief in trickle-down, but what they’ve given us is the Flood.
The world looks on in stunned amazement, unable to understand how a once great nation has grown so indifferent not just to its poor and its blacks but even to the most rudimentary self-preservation. Some of it is institutional racism, but the primary culprit is the economic libertarianism that the president still espouses whenever he sells his Social Security snake oil. It’s that libertarianism, more than anything else, that has transformed a great city into an immense morgue.
What’s bizarre about all this is that the premise–that the United States is a libertarian nation vehemently opposed to government programs–has been untrue for seventy years or more. Even under the current Administration and a Republican Congress, we’ve spent hundreds of billions creating or expanding entitlement programs. The Era of Big Government is not only not over, it’s growing.
What countries do better dealing with a Category 5 hurricane hitting a coastal city that’s well below sea level? Or with major natural disasters, period? Aside from some major earthquakes in Japan–which revealed an infrastructure that could not sustain major earthquakes–I can’t even think of a comparable disaster striking a major economic power in recent years.
The infant mortality canard has been around forever and is widely understood to be an artifact of more stringent reporting on our part.
International comparisons of infant mortality are compromised by a lack of standardization with regard to birth registration practices. Studies have documented wide variation in the rate at which extremely small babies at the borderline of viability (e.g., < 500 g) are registered in different countries.7,8 In fact, recent secular trends and interprovincial comparisons of infant mortality within Canada are also affected by such differences in birth registration [Original Research].9 As a potential solution, the World Health Organization has recommended that international comparisons of infant mortality be restricted to live births in which the newborn weighs 1000 g or more.10 Such a restriction would eliminate a substantial proportion of neonatal deaths from the infant mortality counts of most industrialized countries, however. This and other challenges inherent in birth- weight-specific comparisons mean that international infant mortality rankings will continue to be based on crude rates and will favour industrialized countries, which tend not to register extremely small live births.
This is compounded by the fact that only the most developed countries prioritize the keeping of careful statistics on such matters and that autocracies are much less loathe than democracies to fudge statistics to make themselves look better.
Finally, the idea that the catastrophe in New Orleans and the Gulf region is somehow a function of Bush era tax cuts for the rich is laughable. Would New Orleans have withstood a Category 5 hurricane better during the Clinton or Carter administrations? Of course not.
The United States is a huge country that stretches across a continent with sparse population density over most of that span. Most of our states are bigger than entire European countries but with a fraction of the population density. We can’t reasonably make every road, bridge, and dam able to withstand once-in-a-century disasters.