Monday, April 16, 2018

The Political is Personal: Corporate power, social isolation, and the health of the nation -- Part 1

This talk was delivered on April 16, 2018, at the 29th Conference on Primary Care Access, Monterey California.

Our society has increasingly become about isolating people and making them feel alone, thus decreasing, and sometimes almost eliminating both social cohesion and any sense of social solidarity. This may seem most obvious when people – not just young people – don’t hear us because they have earbuds in, or walk into us on the street because they are staring at their phones, or worse yet, are looking at their phones while driving – but it is much more serious and profound. In his seminal 2000 book, “Bowling Alone”, Robert D. Putnam re-introduced the term “social capital” (previously used by Alexis deToqueville, John Dewey, Jane Jacobs, and others), to describe a sense of social solidarity and support, the absence of which erodes civil society and decreases political participation. Ways that it is manifested include fewer extended families living with or near each other, greater geographic mobility, and more emphasis by people on their individual, rather than community or even family, lives and achievements. More and more studies point to “loneliness” as a key variable in our health. Evidence has also linked this increased separation to worse health status.

Importantly, this isolation is not simply an organic development in our society. It is also a core manifestation of very late stage monopoly capitalism. What we have today: monopoly (or at least oligopoly) corporations stifling competition, more and more mergers and takeovers with concomitant rises in prices, and stagnant or decreasing standards of living even for most of those living in the richest country on the globe. The stock market may go up, but most people’s lives are not getting better.

Socially, this has resulted in us feeling alone, separated from others and often feeling as if we are nothing but the targets of marketing campaigns that urge us to buy-buy-buy and trade in what we have on something newer – and better! Nothing is exempt, every protest or revolutionary idea is commoditized, from Che Guevara posters to the feminist movement to protest music to environmental concern – all becomes grist for the profit mill. The only challenge for the corporations is how to get us to spend more while paying us less.

More than Adam Smith, or David Ricardo, or Milton Friedman, or any other political philosopher or economist, the world we are living in and moving towards was predicted by George Orwell. 1984 describes massive superpowers in a continual war that provides the justification for suppression of dissent domestically, and the overall thought-control of the state. Does it sound at all familiar? We see some examples of this in the CDC being told it cannot use certain terms, in restrictions on journalists’ reporting, and the refrain of “fake news” every time those in control do not like what the “true news” is.

The only real threat to this status quo would be if people got together and organized, whether against war and nuclear weapons, climate change, the obscene increase in wealth inequality, racism, or health and access to health care. Therefore every effort to do so, from “Occupy” to #Black Lives Matter to the Standing Rock opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, to the struggle for universal health care, to, most recently, the struggle to get control of guns and stop or decrease killings both in schools and in the community (#enoughisenough) is challenged and demeaned, and efforts are made to break them up. We are repeatedly told that we are not our brothers’ keepers, that we should not be paying “more taxes” to ensure that our fellow Americans (not to mention people in the rest of the world) are fed, housed, clothed, warm, and educated. Indeed, sometimes even kept alive – see the rising mortality of white Americans (Case and Deaton). White Americans, specifically low-income white Americans, are the only group for which mortality is rising, although it is critical to note that the absolute mortality rate of minorities, especially African-Americans, remains much higher. Even when the things that we feel are in fact shared by many or most others, this is kept secret by the pro-corporate media. When a NY Times poll on taxes shows that most people feel that they pay too much in tax, and that the wealthiest pay too little and should pay more, only the first is reported. So each of us who feels that way thinks we are alone. It prevents us getting together.
How does this manifest in health? I have already mentioned rising mortality. While much of this has been tied to the “opioid epidemic”, it goes deeper; opioids, and other substances, including alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, may be the mechanism of death, but the root causes are social. As a society, for many of us, we have lost our jobs, we have lost our sense that our children’s lives can be better, and too often we have lost hope. Our social structures have not just withered, they are actively being destroyed.

The dominant narrative changes to meet these structural needs, and almost always plays on the racism upon which this country was founded. For example, during the “War on Drugs”, the assumption was that users were mostly minority and were called “addicts” and were at fault and were to be punished; now that users are more and more white and have had their drugs prescribed by physicians, they are “victims”. When a white man commits mass murders by gun or bomb (as recently in Austin, Las Vegas), he is the problem – troubled, mentally ill. When a minority or Muslim person does, it is a reflection on their race or religion.
In fact, they are all victims, and we are all perpetrators..

The ACA helped many people gain financial access to medical care, but even if it is not completely dismantled, that care is becoming less accessible, and costs are going up for many patients. Medicaid, and even Medicare, are in the sights of those who are seeking ways to fund the enormous tax cuts that they passed for the wealthiest individuals and corporations. People continue to go without health care, especially without prevention and early diagnosis and treatment, the kind of care that family physicians, provide. The US remains the only industrialized country without a national health system, insurance, or service, and our thought leaders continue to insist that such a program is inaccessible.

In a recent JAMA article, Papinicolas, Woskie, and Jha compared the costs of care in the US to ten other wealthy countries. They observed that the US has “administrative costs” (including profits) almost 3 times that of other countries, that we pay more for procedures and for drugs, and that a big part of the problem is that we have a higher percentage of poor people. Shockingly, the coverage in the NY Times, especially by the headline writer was, in the online edition “Why Is U.S. Health Care So Expensive? Some of the Reasons You’ve Heard Turn Out to Be Myths”, and perhaps even more inaccurately in the print edition, “United States healthcare resembles rest of world”.

What? Anyone who has been to this conference before, anyone who is awake, in fact, knows this is not the case. To extract these headlines requires both careful cherry-picking of the data, as well as including such falsehoods as “40% of US physicians are in primary care”. That would be news to all of us in primary care; it is, in fact, also known as the “Dean’s Lie”, maintaining that everyone entering Internal Medicine is in primary care, when 80+% become subspecialists and more than half the remainder hospitalists.

And what about the fact that we have so many people in poverty? Does this somehow excuse our high cost – and frequent inaccessibility – of care? Or should it, rather, be a wakeup call, an assertion that things are NOT OK, that we need less inequality and, like the other countries studied, a better safety net to ensure that not only medical care but the major social determinants of health – housing, food, warmth, education, safety – are in place for all Americans. Pundits persist in their “unaffordable” argument although it strains credulity in the time of trillion dollar tax cuts, and continue to use un-Americanism as a justification for avoiding “socialized medicine”. Apparently, to them, Americanism includes the right to do without health care, be sicker, and die younger.

To be continued...

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