Back in the days when whale oil filled the lamps of Americans, men went out in ships to hunt the leviathan. From those ships they set out in small boats to harpoon their quarry, which sometimes did not go quietly into that good night. A dying whale might expend its last strength in a burst of speed, taking the men in the small boat on what was known as a Nantucket Sleigh Ride.
We are in such a position now, as a nation, experiencing this partial, strategically minimized government shutdown. I say strategically minimized because the air traffic controllers and the border patrol are still on the job. A real, complete shutdown wouldn’t last a day. The metaphorical whale in question is not the government itself. It is partly the health insurance industry and partly the whole corpus of thought that identifies government as “the problem.”
It’s not surprising that the health insurance industry and its minions in congress would want to cause chaos and exert anarchic leverage on the day that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) opens its doors. Despite the fact that we are being funneled into the toothy maw of the industry itself, the rules of mastication and digestion have been significantly altered. Insurance companies must pay out at least 80% of premiums for actual medical care. Compare that to pre-ACA payout rates as low as 50%. Insurance companies can no longer cherry pick their customers for health. Their offerings have to be standardized, which reduces their ability to bamboozle, hornswoggle, or to put it less picturesquely, cheat their customers. And so on. It changes their position from one of near monopsony (monopoly of the few) to a regulated monopsony.
Aside from the obvious financial benefits to us and deficits to them, it opens a conceptual door. That is that health care works better with more government intervention. It is but a short step from that to some kind of national health care plan, eliminating the need for private health insurance entirely. We could emulate our Canadian and European friends, cutting our expenses in half and improving our outcomes. No profit in that.
That open conceptual door leads to another, namely that government is good. A corollary of this is that bad government is not a result of some inherent flaw in the very concept of government, but a result of corrupt private influence. There is a cadre of politicians, journalists, pundits, and political activists who have made lucrative careers out of bashing the very concept of an active government. A passive and cooperative government is an appealing prospect for their corporate sponsors.
A successful implementation of the ACA is a major harpoon into the corporate blubber. Hence the panicked thrashing about.
The corporate forces have missed something, though. They sponsored and promoted a group of magically thinking ideologues called the Tea Party. The Tea Partiers exhibit a worldview that can be contained in a Dixie-cup; xenophobic, selfish, short-sighted, unscientific, and misinformed. These anti-government fundamentalists have faithfully pounded away at our government’s ability to raise money and provide services. Therein lies the problem for their corporate sponsors. Corporations are creatures of law. They are created by government fiat, protected by government courts and law enforcement, and subsidized by government. They rely on government services, governmentally administered markets, and government contracts. When the anti-government ideologues get their way, the corporate world starts falling apart. Freedom from regulation is only pleasant when those around you are still constrained.
It’s blowback, much the same as what our government got from backing the Afghani mujihadeen. Once you train them and equip them they don’t stop when they have finished off your enemies. The investment/business wing of the GOP is realizing that the crazy wing, doing the bidding of the health insurance industry, won’t stop blowing things up when they are supposed to. It’s a little late for that realization.
The thing that the corporate elite can’t and won’t allow themselves to realize is that they need an effective, active government as much as ordinary people do. They need someone to save them from themselves. That fundamental contradiction is being brought to the forefront of politics, and that is one jagged and rusty harpoon.
Hang on tight!