Of Mice and Men — and Elephants

Ed Raymond

What Are The “Best Laid Schemes” For Our Future?

    Israeli historian Tuval Noah Harari recently made a fascinating declaration in an article about the future: “People living in the 12th century knew pretty well what the 13th century would be like. Now we are in the first part of the 21st century and we don’t have a clue what the 22nd century will be like—or whether there will be one.”  Progress was slow in the 12th century but now in the 21st technical and scientific progress is overwhelming us. We wonder about driverless cars, a huge new camera which may study the beginnings of the universe, and whether Antarctica ice will melt and add 13 feet to the oceans. Scottish poet Robert Burns was plowing a field in the 18th century and turned over a mouse’s nest and immediately waxed poetic about the incident in his poem “To a Mouse”:

   “But mousie, you aren’t alone in proving foresight may be in vain: the best laid schemes o’ mice and men often go awry and leave us nought but grief an’ pain for promised joy.”

   Sometimes all the planning and plotting we conjure up to secure our future are plowed under and “go awry.” What happened to South African great white hunter Theunia Botha on May 22, 2017 reminded me of the poem. A veteran of 28 years of leading safari leopard and lion hunting in a half-dozen African countries, he was leading a safari in Zimbabwe when his party surprised a group of breeding elephants. Perhaps incensed about being interrupted at a hormonal crucial time, three elephants charged and the hunting group opened fire. A fourth elephant rammed Botha from the side as one of his fellow hunters fired a shot that killed the elephant. The six-ton elephant got even by falling on Botha and crushing him. That’s life gone awry in today’s world.

What Is The Main Issue Of The 21st Century?

   Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post writes: “Inequality may well be the issue of our time. But is it inequality of income we care about, or inequality of opportunity? And what is opportunity—the opportunity to do better than our parents, or better than ourselves at an earlier age, or does it mean doing better relative to everyone else? Can some of us get wealthier without making others poorer?” But our capitalistic system—without regulations—does not maintain the common good, often called the social contract we make with each other, that is so necessary to energize and stabilize a society. 

  Businesses large and small must help support the education, infrastructure, housing, and health of all of us if our country is going to compete in the world. The typical attitude today of business and corporation CEOs is outlined by multi-billionaire Charles Koch in defending the accumulation of great wealth: “I believe my business and nonprofit investments are much more beneficial to societal well-being than sending more money to Washington.” But if the Koch brothers do not want to pay their fair share of taxes to support education programs for all, adding to and rebuilding infrastructure, making housing available to all “classes” within a society, or making sure that all members of our society have access to good health care, we will have tremendous civil unrest ahead for all of us. 

   The Koch brothers and the Jack Welches in business have to realize they use our education, infrastructure, and health to get rich. So do Apple and Google that hide billions in tax havens around the world. The giant corporation Exxon Mobil claims it has substantial losses in the United States but has tremendous profits overseas in tax havens. The Best Congress Money Can Buy makes this charade possible. When Jack Welch was CEO of General Electric for 20 years he became a business icon when he said he would like to put GE’s factories on barges so they could be towed to countries with the lowest wages. That attitude has now permeated the Republican Party and most of our billionaires. They don’t seem to realize that employees should not be treated as disposables. Employees in society are part of business capital.

What Do We Have a Government For?

   This is what conservative writer Bret Stephens asked the other day in the New York Times. He wanted government to do something about our Rube Goldberg, bizarre, incomprehensible health “system” which continues to astound other industrialized countries with universal care. He is asking Congress to answer a few questions. Why does a blood test cost $10 in some California clinics while in others it costs as much as $10,169? Why does a lower-back MRI in Florida cost $199 while in San Francisco the same test runs $6,221? Why does a 30-day supply of the HIV drug Truvalda cost $1,301 but runs $559 in Spain? Why do we charge $31,620 for an angioplasty surgery while the average price is $7,264 in Great Britain? Why does a hip replacement in the United States run $29,067 but you can get the same replacement for $15,465 flying to New Zealand?  I have to add one bill to his list of questions. A New York plastic surgeon put three stitches in a patient’s cheek and sent a bill for $50,000. After a court battle it wasn’t paid—but what was the doctor thinking? Perhaps he thought it was just another day in health care in the U.S. We charge $1,000 a pill for a cancer drug while the same pill sells for $4 in India. Sarepta Pharmaceuticals is now trying to peddle a drug called Exondys 51 developed to counter Duchenne muscular dystrophy for $300,000 a year—for a small child. The drug for an older child could run $1.5 million a year. The FDA has not decided whether the drug works or not. Stephens has a final question for Congress: “When did you last go bargain-hunting for a urinalysis?” I have another one for Congress: Isn’t it time to declare health care a human right? The rest of the industrialized world has.

   We spend about $10,000 per person on health care while leaving about 30 million without any insurance. The 33 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spend an average $3,633 while providing care for everyone. Although an American spends $4,571 out of his own pocket on health care and lives to be an average 78.8 years, he lives about a long as a person in the Czech Republic who spends only $236 out-of-pocket. Incidentally, a U.S. person in the top 20% lives an average of 93 years while a citizen in the bottom 80% lives to 67.

   After Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone visited hospitals for three months while researching a book, he had this summary of his experiences: “The American health care system is a Frankenstein monster of monopolistic insurance zones peppered with a thousand different carriers, each with their own (often cruel) procedures and billing systems. The hospitals I visited all told me they devoted enormous resources—as much as half of all administrative staff—to chasing claims. Patient care in America is in this way consistently reduced to a ludicrous and irrational negotiation of two competing professional disciplines: medicine, and extracting money from insurance companies….Ideas like a single-payer system…would be obvious fixes.”

Whatever Happened To A Sense of Proportion To Serve Us In The 22nd Century?

   Our health care “system” must get ideas from our military on how it spends money. The U.S. Army’s Patriot missile is one of the costliest and most sophisticated surface-to-air weapons in the world at $3 million each. We recently shot down a small drone with a Patriot in Iraq. The estimated cost of the ISIS drone? $200. Does The Best Congress Money Can Buy understand cost-benefit ratios?

   With the way Republicans are trying to “reform” Obamacare, I think they should all carry a red medical bracelet with this inscription: “Do not call a doctor, an ambulance, or take me to an emergency room. Do not resuscitate me under any circumstances. Let me die in peace.” Many Republican men do not want to pay for health insurance covering pregnancies and births. More immaculate conceptions?!!

   A liberal sent the following message to Republicans in The Huffington Post: “Like many Americans I’m having arguing-about-politics fatigue. When trying to reach across the aisle, I don’t know how to explain to someone why they should care about other people. Personally, I’m happy to pay an extra 4.3% for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re fundamentally a different person than I am. I’m perfectly willing to pay taxes that go toward public schools. Poverty should not be a death sentence in the richest country in the world. I can’t debate someone into caring about what happens to their fellow human beings. The fact that such detached cruelty is so normalized in a certain party’s political discourse is at once infuriating and terrifying. The ‘I’ve got mine so screw you’ attitude has been oozing from the American right wing for decades.” I guess that’s why 13 Republican white men in dark suits with Chinese-made American flags in their lapels are presently in charge of reforming health care in the United States.

Some Signs The 22nd Century Will Be A Bleak House For Most Americans

1.  In Silicon Valley where the median home value is $2.5 million and the minimum wage is $12 an hour, it would take $42.69 an hour to afford rental on a two-bedroom apartment. So in Palo Alto dozens of rundown RVs and camping trailers line streets where “homeless” workers live. But the rich do not like their roads lined with old RVs so now the authorities are enforcing a rule that bans parking in the same spot for a 72-hour period. There are 200 old RVs lining the streets in the nearby town of Mountain View.

2.  On Skid Row in Los Angeles over 1,800 live on the streets utilizing only nine portable toilets. That’s 200 people per toilet. The United Nations has a standard of one toilet for 20 people in long-term refugee camps. Los Angeles County currently has 57,794 homeless people but supplies only 43 working toilets instead of the 2,889 that are required by the United Nations.

3.  Volkswagen is manufacturing 500 Bugatti Chirons at a plant in France that are selling for $3 million. It has a 1,500 hp engine that will reach 60 mph in 2.5 seconds and a top speed of 261 mph. It has sold more than half of the production.  The car does have some competition from $2 million Ferraris and $3 million McLarens. The Chiron offers three dozen different colors of leather interiors.

4.  The San Francisco school district employs many homeless teachers because one-bedroom apartments rent for $3,000 and the average fixer-upper home can run well over $1 million. Even some San Francisco city planners cannot afford to live in the city they plan.