This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long while now when people talk about universal health care and basic income, but that I’ve never really wanted to spell out because I have no solutions to offer and it’s a very bleak view of the world.
But I think it’s maybe time to voice this thought?
I’ve thought for a long time now that we were heading towards a branching point in society. And that the United States was very likely to fall on one side of that branch while most other Western countries were going to fall on the other side of the branch.
What it revolves around is this idea that we all deserve universal health care and a basic living which those who advocate for believe to be a basic human right. But the thing is that there’s a large portion of U.S. society who either implicitly or explicitly don’t actually believe that.
See, if you want to take a very cynical view of the U.S. (and many other countries quite frankly) you would look and you would see that those at the top have built their wealth on the efforts of all of those below them. He who makes the most is he who is best able to leverage the work of others.
Not really a new concept, actually.
For hundreds of years those at the top have needed the physical labor of those at the bottom. They needed bodies. Lots of them. If you’re going to ship thousands of products all over the world, someone has to box up all those products and deliver them, right? If you’re going to have retail stores someone has to stock the place and take customer payments. If you’re going to have a consulting firm someone needs to do the analysis and presentation.
Because of this need for bodies to create the value that those at the top leverage, there has always been at least a minimal motivation to make sure that enough bodies were available to leverage and that those bodies were educated in such a way that they fit into the slots they needed to fit into and that they stayed healthy enough to do what was needed and were paid enough to keep them from going to work for the competition.
But to be clear it was never about caring for those people. It was never about seeing them as human beings and wanting them to be happy and fulfilled. It was always about putting the right widget in the right spot to maximize value where that widget happened to be a person who demanded certain treatment.
Now, here’s where the upcoming branch occurs.
With increasing technology, especially in robotics, automation, and advances in health care, we are reaching a point where we have more bodies than those at the top need to create their wealth. They can replace the bodies they used to need with robots or self-driving cars or smart computers that can duplicate human thought processes. Or they can have one person do the work of ten.
And with extended life expectancy the wink-wink, nudge-nudge promise of retirement suddenly becomes something that people could realistically live long enough to achieve.
But those who leverage others for wealth have no interest in people who are not providing them with value. They don’t really want to pay out for years to someone who is now doing nothing for them. Or to all those workers who they don’t need anymore because a robot does the job just fine now.
Those people used to leveraging others now want those excess people to go away.
Sometimes when I see people talk about universal healthcare I will see someone ask, “Do they really want people to die?” and I want to quietly whisper to them, “Yes, they do, actually.”
Because once they don’t need those workers to create their wealth for them, they really truly have no need for those people to continue to be alive. They don’t believe that we’re all in this together or that we should help one another out. They believe in a transactional world where you only receive in proportion to what you give and if you can’t give, well then f you.
That’s the dark path the U.S. is headed down. It’s not UBI and health care and we’re all in this together. It’s “if you don’t provide me with value, then you can die for all I care.”
And I honestly think that’s part of the tug-of-war we’re now seeing over COVID-19. There really truly is a certain portion of our U.S. population with the attitude that those older people who can no longer be leveraged for value can acceptably die as long as it doesn’t interfere with their day-to-day lives.
(I have no doubt there are some looking at what we spend on Social Security and experiencing a sick little moment of glee thinking how much less we might be spending in a few years depending on how high those fatality numbers go.)
Which is why the messaging that we’re all in this together and that we need to stay home to protect the most vulnerable among us is wasted on those people. They simply don’t care about the most vulnerable among us.
The only way to appeal to that sector of society is to make it personal to them. To make them understand that they could personally die or be impacted. That breaking our healthcare system means that broken leg from their ski accident goes septic instead of being treated by a top surgeon or that cancer goes undetected or that appendix bursts or that heart attack isn’t treated in time to save them.
And the only way we’re going to get things like UBI and universal health care and better income equality in the U.S. is by making it clear to those at the very top that they risk losing everything if they don’t share some, a lesson that’s been learned over and over again throughout history in the most brutal of ways and then is promptly forgotten until it happens yet again.
Oh, and the other branch of course is the one you see in other Western countries where the belief is that we’re all in this together and that we collectively create the wealth our country sees and that therefore that wealth should be distributed at a basic level to all members of society.
Somehow I don’t see the U.S. ever getting there. Which means twenty years from now this will be a really ugly place to live. If not before then.
And on that cheery note…