With the 2004 elections ended, our ears are still ringing from the never-ending series of feel-good statements issuing from the mouths of politicians, about how America has the best democracy in the world, the best health care system, the best this, and the best that. It would be nice if it were true. But the evidence is clear: America lags far behind Europe when it comes to both health and politics.
Originally published 2004
The two issues are not independent. American lags Europe with respect to health, precisely because it lags Europe with respect to having a truly representative democracy. Indeed, our health problems are a direct byproduct of deficiencies in our system of democracy.
True, America has a great health care system. But health is another matter. The rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer in America far exceed those of any other industrial nation. In fact, America has the worst ranking of any industrial nation on all statistical measures of health.
The major cause for those diseases is the American diet. In Europe and Canada, partially hydrogenated oils have been banned for decades, along with other harmful additives. Effective herbal remedies are easily available, and genetically modified foods have been outlawed.
Here in America, the land of democracy, we can’t even get genetically modified foods labeled. If we did, agribusiness profits might suffer. Unthinkable horror. How could we possibly even imagine such a thing? It’s come to the point that even discussing such a move is “un-American”. Such is the power of corporate control in Washington, and in the media.
So one of the reasons we have a great health care system is that we need it so desperately. The foods we eat are so destructive to our health and immune system that we pay more per capita than any other industrial nation to keep ourselves “healthy”. Well, to keep ourselves a step further from death’s door, at any rare.
That’s why health care costs are rising so fast. And we older folks are thelucky ones, because we grew up in a nation that had not yet fully adulterated its food supply. It is our children who are paying a truly saddening price for our neglect of these issues — a verypolitical neglect, as it turns out.
Representative Government? Representing Who?
Our government favors agribusiness corporations, so we don’t make laws that hurt their profits — or even enforce the laws we do have adequately. And if the lack of those laws or their enforcement hurts people, so what? The people will pay for health care, and that benefits the medical industry. So everyone wins. Well, every corporation wins, anyway. The people suffer, but how much does that matter, really?
Of course, you and I happen to think it matters a lot. But we don’t really count. You see, we’re not really represented in Washington. Yes, we elect “representatives”. But how well do they represent us, really? Do we even know? When was the last time you reviewed the votes your representatives made on impending legislation? And how could you tell whether they made a vote that makes sense?
That would be hard to do, of course. So it’s no wonder that you haven’t. So the question becomes this: When corporations give a politicians all the money they need to convince us they’re doing a good job, why do they need to listen to us? They don’t really. But you already knew that.
Universal Health Care?
Take Universal Health Care — or rather, the lack of it. Since we don’t have it, there is no real incentive to keep people healthy. After all, when they get sick, they pay. (Or their insurance company does, which is pretty much the same thing.)
So corporations have every incentive to treat disease, but none to prevent it. Of course, HMO’s see the value of prevention — but they’re too busy saving money by denying procedures to make it their major focus. Besides, even if they wanted to attack the food producers, they couldn’t — because somewhere up the ladder, they’re owned by the same industrial conglomerates.
With Universal Health Care, things are different. When one person gets sick,everyone pays. That creates a lot of incentive to keep people healthy. But in our proud tradition of “being responsible for yourself”, we haven’t managed to to enact Universal Health Care legislation. But are we really that opposed to Universal Health Care? Or is that the argument that corporations are making because they don’t want Universal Health Care?
And what about doctors and the organic foods consortiums? Don’t politicians listen to them? Well, once again, not really. After all, the money they can provide is just a drop in the bucket compared to drug companies and agribusiness.
Alternative Political Parties?
Now, if the someone from the Green Party were voted into the legislature, that would certainly make a difference. They would be in a position to voice our concerns about the foods, energy use, air and water quality, and a variety of other issues that affect our lives.
But in a two-party democracy characterized by winner-take-all voting, where the outcome of elections is predestined by the redistricting that is performed every 10 years by the party currently in power, there is essentially zero chance that a Green party candidate can get elected to national office in any state larger than Vermont.
Here again, we lag far behind Europe. Each of the European democracies has produced a system of proportional representation that guaranteesevery constituency is represented — especiallyminority constituencies, where “minority” means not just racial and religious minorities, but also minorities concerned with nutrition, the environment, energy, and workers’ rights.
Of course, we take pride in the fact that our government is moreeffective. It doesn’t take us as long to decide what to do, and once we decide, we implement our decisions quite effectively. The problem is, we don’t always make the right decision — especially with people so disenfranchised in the political process by corporate money.
As John Adams pointed out in Thoughts on Government, the most effective government of all is tyranny. So maybe being “effective” isn’t the best yardstick for measuring government. Maybe, just maybe, it’s better to measure government based on how it takes care of its people.
And in that respect, the sad fact is that we do indeed lag far behind Europe.
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