Thursday, April 07, 2005

What You're Doing When You're Doing What You Look Like You're Doing
We can't know everything. It's just not possible. That's one of the reasons we institute governments--as the collectively expressed will of the people, governments are intended to learn the things we can't and act for us collectively on the things that we are incapable of doing individually. For a long time in this country, the assumption underlying governmental action was the idea of the common good--that what government did would benefit the public, generally. Whether it actually did has always been open to debate--but these days, it looks as if the debate is over, and the public good has lost out to something else. Private interests, certainly--but also to a kind of every-man-for-himself ethos that's the opposite of concepts like collectivism and the common good.

Flying home from a business trip last week, I read an article in the latest Harper's by Erik Reece on mountaintop coal mining in Kentucky. Coal companies blast and bulldoze the tops off of entire mountains to get at the coal beneath. No more crews digging like in days of old; a whole mountain can be leveled and mined by a dozen or so people. After the coal is taken, they shovel what's left of the tops down into the valleys (frequently buring streams), bulldoze the whole thing to flatness, and plant grass on it. Voila! As far as the government is concerned, if there's grass growing eventually, there's no environmental damage. (The article isn't available online, but there's a good summary of it here.)

This practice benefits the mining companies, who grow rich on the mineral resources and build their profits by taking the resources as cheaply as possible. What looks like a benefit trickles down to residents of the mountain areas, who need the jobs mining provides--but who also suffer from the disastrous environmental consequences that often result. Better to live on a moonscape with your taps running sulfuric acid than to find another way to make a living, I guess. Leaving aside the issue of bare survival, I wonder how you can live in the shadow of something as beautiful as the Appalachians can be and appreciate it so little. And I wonder what happened to the idea that we could mine the resources and preserve the mountains and protect the residents of the region.

Most people don't know where the coal that generates their electricity comes from--and even I, when I first heard about this practice, didn't believe they were actually flattening the Appalachians, but they are. Like I said, it's not our fault that we don't know, necessarily. We can't know everything--even though our inability to know everything is costing us more and more every day.

Take the legislation working its way through Congress to establish association health plans. This is touted as a way to cut the cost of health insurance for business owners--but the law as currently written allows such plans to exempt themselves from state regulation if they meet certain criteria. As the American Cancer Society puts it:
By excluding AHPs from state insurance requirements, they would bypass state consumer protections that assure access to life-saving colon and breast cancer screenings, certain preventive services, and cutting-edge clinical trials.

AHPs would be able to configure benefit packages to attract healthier people and discourage sicker people from joining. The state health insurance market would be left to cover more expensive individuals, such as cancer patients and survivors. Leaving one pool more heavily weighted with sicker individuals could drive up costs for the small businesses and their employees that remain in the state regulated insurance market.
So business owners get a break that helps them, and their employees get another modest benefit--even though they may end up far poorer for it in the long run. And people who have nothing to do with any specific AHP--those in the state-regulated insurance market--end up worse off as well. And you wonder, again, what happened to the idea that government should act on our behalf to benefit everybody?

(On the latter issue, you can also chalk it up as another way in which the Repugs are abandoning their cherished states' rights for the heavy fist of federally mandated control.)

The idea that humankind is capable of continuous, infinite progress has been around since the Enlightenment. But John Locke and the others didn't live in a society as unimaginably complex as our own. And so maybe they were wrong. Perhaps this is the way the world ends--with individuals battered by a hurricane of choices, small ones they are permitted to make but bigger ones made for them, until they retreat into a shelter of solipsism or fundamentalism to maintain the illusion that the world is still a controllable place. But is it?

Screw it. I'm going to watch the hockey game.

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