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Sicko

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By Stephen Gowans

Michael Moore’s Sicko is an entertaining and emotionally compelling film. It exposes the harshness of profit-based healthcare to the majority of Americans, and does so in the film-maker’s accustomed engaging way. There is no one as deft in connecting on issues of concern to the left and ordinary people with as large an audience as Moore. On this, he has no peer.

While the film has been labelled controversial by the US media, it is anything but. Few Americans would disagree with the thesis of the film – that for them a program of universal healthcare would be far better than the current profit-based system.

What controversy the film has generated has been confined to those in whose interest universal healthcare is inimical: insurance companies whose profits would suffer grievously were universal healthcare adopted; banks, investors and corporations, who have an interest in shrinking the commons, not seeing it expanded; and the media, which – owned by the same class — reliably promotes its interests.

Media pundits accuse Moore of fudging the facts, warn Americans that Canada, France, Britain and Cuba (countries whose healthcare systems are highlighted in the film) are not healthcare paradises, and stress that free healthcare for all is not free, but comes with crushing taxes. (It is not pointed out, however, that the taxes are mainly shouldered by those most able to pay, i.e., the same people sounding the alarm about universal healthcare.)

For a Canadian who knows something about the single-payer health insurance plan Moore idolizes, the US media campaign against Moore’s film is a transparent propaganda offensive whose goal it is to discredit Moore and universal healthcare. It’s true the Canadian system has flaws – fatal ones if you believe the US media spin — but the flaws US scare-mongers cite have nothing whatever to do with the system itself, and everything to do with what Canadian politicians have spent the last two decades doing: under-funding the system to make Canadians increasingly dissatisfied so they’ll demand the wonders of the US for-profit system CNN is always touting and investors privately clamor for.

The fact of the matter is that the US spends considerably more per capita on healthcare than Canada does, and yet healthcare outcomes for ordinary people are better in Canada. The US spends infinitely more than Cuba does, but only manages to place a few notches higher on healthcare rankings. That the richest country in the world only manages to edge out a Third World country – and one it has spent the last four and half decades trying to strangle economically — says (1) much for Cuba’s system, (2) unless your wealthy, the US for-profit system sucks and (3) the Cuban system in an industrialized country would — by comparison to what’s available today — be the “healthcare nirvana” the US media warns doesn’t exist.

While Moore has cogently exposed the deep flaws of the US for-profit healthcare system, his comments to the media on what Americans should do to secure a better system are less compelling.

In a testy exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Moore suggested that “the people (who) have gone to my movie, the people that are concerned about this issue … write to Mrs. Clinton and say, please, universal healthcare that’s free for everyone who lives in this country.”

In response to the charge that the government is incapable of competently administering healthcare, Moore counters that there’s nothing wrong with the government, only with the people who get elected.

The implied solutions are straight out of Moore’s high school civics class textbook. Vote, write letters, be informed. If we press for universal healthcare, and elect the right people, we’ll get what we ask for.

But a deeper analysis would ask two questions:

Why is it that the “right” people rarely, if ever, get elected?

Why did Hilary Clinton’s proposal for healthcare reform die 14 years ago?

Contrary to what Moore and others learned in their high school civics classes, the US political system is not democratic, but plutocratic. It is minimally responsive to the interests of the majority of people, but maximally responsive to the interests of the slim minority that owns and controls the economy, and is able, by virtue of its ownership and control position, to command the resources that allow it to tilt the playing field decidedly in its own favor. Sure, there are elections, and most everyone is free to vote. But those who have money – and lots of it — can dominate the system. And who has lots of money?

Money power plays an overwhelming role in selecting candidates to stand for election, and not surprisingly, those candidates who are best able to command the considerable financial backing needed to get elected lean towards looking after the interests of the wealthy people and corporations cutting the checks. As a Canadian prime minister once said of politicians elected in capitalist democracies, “You dance with the one who brought you to the dance.”

Moore himself points to the subversive role money plays in politics. Hilary Clinton, who has reconciled herself to the monstrosity of the US healthcare system, is one of the largest recipients of insurance industry backing. Moore’s website calls her a leading “Sicko for Sale.”

So why does the film-maker think that people writing letters to beseech a co-opted Clinton for free healthcare is going to make a difference, especially when, as Moore acknowledges, 14 years ago the insurance industry “went after her” and “stopped her cold”? What has changed in 14 years to deny the insurance industry the power to stop (or co-opt) champions of universal healthcare?

Moore also genuflected to the nonsense he learned in high school civics classes when he scolded Wolf Blitzer and the US media for not doing their job in acting as an unofficial opposition, not safeguarding the public interest, and “not bringing the truth to (Americans) that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.”

Like other liberals, Moore is aggrieved that the US and its institutions don’t live up to their rhetoric, believing that through pressure and moral suasion, politicians, CEOs, and the media can be forced to hew to civics textbook ideals.

But where, outside of the nonsense kids are force-fed in school, does it say the media have to be an unofficial opposition? And where does it say the media have to behave in a manner that puts the mission of informing the public ahead of their first and only obligation – to make profits for their owners?

CNN, FOX, The New York Times and other major media are under no obligation to ask tough questions of US leaders, to act in the public interest (is there a public interest that reconciles the conflicting interests of class?) or to “tell the truth to Americans that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.” As businesses, their only obligation is to their owners, and their owners’ interests are decidedly at odds with those of the people who go to Moore’s films.

Call it a class-issue. If you deploy capital to generate profits, you have interests opposed to those of Moore’s audiences: war for oil profits versus not dying as a grunt in Iraq; the profits to be secured from private healthcare versus the security of free healthcare; a media that instils an ideology congenial to your profit-making interests versus one that challenges it.

Notwithstanding Moore’s complaints, Blitzer and other journalists haven’t failed to do their jobs. They’ve performed remarkably well. What Moore hasn’t figured out is that there isn’t a public interest for Blitzer to serve, only class interests. And since it’s not white and blue collar workers who own CNN, but the owners of Time-Warner who do, Blitzer isn’t working for us. He’s working for people who have an interest in private, for-profit healthcare, an aggressive foreign policy that’s good for business, and any other policy that takes money, wealth, labor and sweat from you, me, Iraqis, Venezuelans, Cubans and so on, and gives it to them.

Moore has also shown a certain blindness when it comes to Canada. On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Moore pointed favourably to Canada for not invading other countries and for operating a healthcare system Moore believes the US should adopt.

Canada’s healthcare system, while preferable to that of the US, still comes up short against Cuba’s. Moore explored the relative merits of the US, Canadian and Cuban healthcare systems in a “healthcare Olympics” segment of his former TV program TV Nation. While network censors forced Moore to declare Canada the winner, the film-maker admitted that Cuba had really won. If Cuba’s system is better (and it is) why endorse Canada’s?

As to Moore’s lionizing Canada for not invading other countries, he’s under the spell of an illusion.

•Canada took part in the UN “police action” in Korea in the 50s, which saw a US-led coalition invade the Korean peninsula to put down a national liberation movement operating in both the north and south.

•Canada is part of a force that invaded Haiti after its president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was ousted by US intrigues.

•Canadian troops are occupying Afghanistan. Since US forces kicked down the door, and were never invited in, Canada’s occupation – which frees up US military resources to concentrate on the occupation of Iraq — is in any practical sense an invasion.

It might also be pointed out that Canada doesn’t play in the same league as the US and Britain when it comes to invading other countries, not because Canadians are peace-loving, but because Canada doesn’t have the military heft to mimic its neighbour to the south. Canada is driven by the same profit-making imperatives that impel US and British policy makers to use force, subversion, economic pressure, diplomacy and civil society to secure export and investment opportunities in other countries. Had Canada its neighbor’s military muscle it would just as ardently use bombers, missiles and tanks to kick down foreign doors.

Moore’s film, Sicko, is to be commended for the entertaining and engaging way it addresses an important issue. But the film-maker’s high-school civics class understanding of system, and his naïve illusions about Canada, leave much to be desired.

Written by what's left

July 12, 2007 at 10:31 pm

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