What’s Wrong with America?

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The world’s one-time sole surviving superpower is in decline. And what ails the U.S. can be seen through the experience of ordinary people—those who personify the existential rationale for “democracy.”

Three recent stories in the news nicely sum it up: the world’s one-time sole surviving superpower is in decline.  The cause is a sickness.  It’s not a disease of the skin, to coin a phrase.  No, we’re talking about a disease of the heart – the heart and soul, that is, of a society.

There’s no better way to get to the core of what ails U.S. America than through the experience of ordinary people – in other words, the very individuals who personify the existential rationale for “democracy” – the Greek word “demos” means populace or the common people.  In theory, RaDonna Kuekelhan and her sister, Cathy O’Mara, who live in a small town in southeast Kansas, are just the kind of people who stand to benefit the most from a democratic form of government, or even an indirect democracy in which people like RaDonna and Cathy vote for other people to represent them in a rule-making body called a legislature.  But, as RaDonna and millions of others in U.S. America are discovering, the deep and widening gulf between theory and practice is not only bad for working-class folks, but also potentially fatal.

Hyperbole, you say?  Left-wing propaganda?  Fear-mongering?   If you think so you probably haven’t read the story (“Life and Death in Brownback’s Kansas”) featured in the June 2 issue of The Nation magazine.  It’s hard reading because RaDonna is dying.  What makes it even harder is that it didn’t have to be that way.  The reason it happened goes to the core of what’s wrong with Kansas – and the country that has forsaken people like RaDonna.

Exactly what kind of people are RaDonna and her sister?  RaDonna is “a stout, white-haired 59-year-old who’s proudly willful, and she has cheated death twice before.” RaDonna lost her job at Emerson Electric making motors for small appliances, when the factory shut down.  She had worked there for two decades.

When RaDonna’s job was taken away, she lost her health insurance.  During that time she also battled cancer, a battle that entailed 35 rounds of radiation and, of course, a great deal of mental agony, to say nothing of the physical suffering.

The cancer returned in 2010, which just happened to be the same year President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law.  It was RaDonna’s salvation – almost.

What happened to RaDonna assumes a human form:  Governor Sam Brownback and a Jurassic-Republican juggernaut otherwise known the Kansas legislature.  The context reads like the predicate to a parable:

In 2010, as RaDonna grew ill, 16 percent of Americans had no coverage; in Montgomery County, RaDonna’s home, the uninsured rate was nearly 22 percent. Few of these people qualified for Medicaid, the national program designed to insure poor people, because Kansas has…one of the more restrictive programs in the country…working parents couldn’t earn more than…$5,859 a year for a family of three.  Childless adults like RaDonna didn’t qualify no matter how little they took home.

But then came the Affordable Care Act (ACA), “which promised a massive nationwide expansion of Medicaid.”

States were asked to open…[health insurance exchanges] to all adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or just about $27,000 a year for a family of three. In return, Washington would pay the full costs of new enrollees through 2016 and 90 percent from 2020 forward. It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of this change. It was arguably the largest expansion of an anti-poverty program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, when Medicaid was created—and it could very well have saved RaDonna’s life.

When in 2011 Sam Brownback, having fought Medicaid expansion, gave the federal grant money ($31.5 million) his financially distressed state had gotten for health care reform back to Washington (!), he was reacting to reactionaries in his own party and serving notice of his intent not to implement the ACA on his watch.

In 2012, the Supreme Court opened the door for states to refuse set up health insurance exchanges – in other words, not to play nicely.  Roughly two-dozen red states are opting out of the ACA.  Kansas is one of them.

There’s no point in questioning the Governor’s motives:  he bears no ill will toward RaDonna or any other fellow Kansans facing a similar fate.  He’s just doing his job as he sees fit.  But by refusing to set up a state health exchange he unwittingly signed RaDonna’s death warrant.

And that, Virginia, is what we call tragedy.

It so happens that about the same time as the “Life and Death” story appeared, a prominent journalist named Thomas B. Edsall published a piecein the New York Times posing this simple but elegant question:  How Do We Get More People to Have Good Lives?

The search for an answer begins, not surprisingly, with education policy and the role of education in fostering a society conducive to success for the greatest possible number. “It has been widely recognized,” Edsall observes, “that the premium on cognitive skills stems from the shift to a knowledge-based economy driven by the decline in manufacturing employment, the growth of the technology and financial sectors, and labor recruitment from a global talent pool.”

The “decline in manufacturing employment” and “labor recruitment from a global talent pool” (a euphemism for off-shoring, outsourcing, and the trend toward replacing human factory workers with robots) explains what happened to RaDonna’s job – and her health insurance.

What is the root cause of the desperate straits so many decent, hard-working people like RaDonna Kuekelhan face?  Edsall cites several empirical studies that find a close correlation between income levels and educational achievement manifested in “high order” cognitive skills necessary to compete and succeed in today’s job market.  This is a not a problem “we can expect even the best teachers to single-handedly remediate. Whatever you think of the educational reform movement — in its charter-school form or its district-takeover form — the forces contributing to contemporary class stratification are beyond the reach of the classroom alone.”

The most recent New York Times/CBS poll finds that most people (nearly 60 percent) want government to work harder to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor:  “Only one-third of Republicans supported a more active government role, versus eight in 10 of Democrats.”  Another finding is more surprising: “Far from a strictly partisan issue, inequality looms large in the minds of almost half of Republicans and two-thirds of independents, suggesting that it will outlive the presidential primary contests and become a central theme in next year’s general election campaign.”  Meanwhile, people who think the system is rigged in favor of the rich now outnumber people who believe everyone has a fair chance in today’s economy (17 percent fewer than in early 2014).

Taken together, these three stories point to the symptoms of what’s causing this nation’s decline.  Unemployment, outsourcing and offshoring, gross economic inequality, low wages, random benefits, weak unions, rising health care costs, and a badly torn social safety net.  The causes are complex but surely the corrupting effects of unlimited campaign contributions, corporate control of the mainstream media, and massive lobbying efforts in Washington are a big part of The Problem.

Time alone will tell whether or not the illness is fatal, but there is no question that what’s the matter with Kansas is also what’s ailing the nation.

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