Friday, January 28, 2005

The Greatest Country On Earth

Effect Measure continues to do a terrific job of reporting on H5N1 avian flu, which increasingly seems pertinent to just about everything. Bookmark them now, under pain of my displeasure.

I know I said I was giving the subject up, but as I was saying the other day chez Echidne, it presents a perfect example of why the Republicans are wrong about their concepts of individualism and patriotism. If I make sure that everyone in my community is vaccinated against a viral disease, then I'm safer even if I'm not vaccinated myself; that's the basic epidemiological concept of herd immunity. But if I am vaccinated, I'm still safer if everyone else is vaccinated. For one thing, vaccines aren't 100-percent effective, so one can't simply say "I got mine, the hell with you." And even if the vaccine does protect me, a hospital that's not overwhelmed by flu cases will be much better able to meet my needs if I have a different ailment.

With all that in mind, here's a quote from the new Effect Measure post:

Japan is stockpiling the antiviral oseltamavir (Tamiflu) sufficient to treat 20 million of their population of 127 million people. The US reportedly has a total of 6 million doses for our 300 million people....
This raises an interesting question: if the United States is really the greatest country on earth, why is it so unwilling to protect its citizens from sickness and death? If American lives are the most important ones in the world, as current conservative thought asserts, then why do we hold those lives so cheap as a matter of principle? Kill a few thousand Americans in a terrorist attack, and it means war for the foreseeable future; kill a few thousand with substandard or unavailable health care, and it's sound public policy.

Republicans have steadfastly ignored the remarkable extent to which individual safety depends on group safety. If you want to protect a country's population, you can't do it by apportioning medical care to the economically "worthy"; a country in which fifty percent or less of the people "deserve" health care is an insecure country, a country divided against itself. If you worry about war and invasion and "defending freedom at home and abroad," as Republicans claim to do, then you have to accept that your country is only as strong as its weakest links. That may sound like "collectivism," but a country is nothing if not a collective. Universal health care is literally a national security issue; free-market dogma that denies this fact endangers us all, as I argued here:
As influential as game theory is supposed to be among the economic elite - and as well known as the Prisoner's Dilemma is - the basic lessons don't seem to have taken hold. You cannot allow the Invisible Hand to make public-health decisions; it doesn't work, and it never will. The temptation to cut costs and corners in public health, and to take huge risks in order to maintain the bottom line, is a recipe for disaster, but it's a course the free market tends to favor strongly.
So there's one implication of H5N1 for domestic policy. Arms Control Wonk recently wrote an excellent piece on its implications for foreign policy, which everyone ought to read in full:
Arms control is founded on the idea that the preoccupation with deliberate aggression leads goverments to jealously guard their soveriegnty, eschew cooperation and obssess about the balance of power, often at the expense of coordinating international responses to more dangerous threats to human security.

Deliberate aggression does occur. But other threats to human security, like deaths from natural disasters, too often get short shrift. Nothing demonstrates the declining relevance of sovereignty and the need for greater international cooperation than the HN51 virus.
A truly great country, I think, would be one whose leaders understand these basic concepts, and act on them.

3 comments:

AJ said...

A very cogent argument. I would like to recommend a book that follows similar lines of thought; Joseph Heath's The Efficient Society. That book describes why Canada is 'as close to Utopia as we can get' largely due to a focus on collective action problems, vs market logic that in the long run proves ironically inefficient at delivering things like healthcare and affordable education, even if both these things raise the average GNP of a society, make it more secure, etc. He did a follow-up with Andrew Potter called The Rebel Sell, applying some of that thinking to examine the idea of 'counterculture', too. Fascinating, and extremely timely.

AJ
westexpressway.typepad.com

Phila said...

Thanks, AJ! The Heath book sounds good, and I'll check into it.

I agree with the other book's arguments, judging by an interview I heard with the authors...they dovetailed pretty well with my own longstanding (and lamentably hard-earned) skepticism about "counterculture," which I've never accepted as a force for real change, and which I blame for promoting the destructive idea that our culture's shifting, aimless idea of "subversion" is an inherently noble motive for action and art.

Rmj said...

You know, this whole "greatest country on earth" meme was valid for about 10 minutes (in purely historical terms), following WWII, when we stood, among many of the advanced industrialized countries of the world, virtually unscathed from the war. We lost lots of people, yes, but look at Russia's losses. We had a battle on only one piece of our soil: Pearl Harbor. Germany was devastated. Munich is one of the most modern cities in Europe, because it was completely destroyed in the war. The U.S. drove Japan back to their islands and then nuked 'em twice. And, truthfully, we geared up for war and defeated the then-greatest war machine on the planet, in very short order. No mean feat. We earned our bragging rights.

And then we started to believe our own publicity. And we sank back into nativism and the no-nothingism of 19th century America, and here we stagnate. The reasons are profound and complex and deeply ingrained in our culture; so deeply they deserve to be called our genetic heritage, and we will play that out for several generations to come. Which means, quite simply, we've had our moment in the sun, or day on the mountaintop, and it's all downhill from here. And I don't mean toward a comfortable retirement....