It was recently announced that a mega-wealthy, former bank CEO and his wife have donated $185 million to UCSF for the creation of a new institute of neuroscience, not surprisingly to be named after them. Their gift represents a new high for UCSF “philanthropy”, and follows on the heels of a $150 million donation by the CEO of a high-tech corporation. I’m struck by the triangulated dynamic of our current gilded age of “robber barons” and the Andrew Carnegie-like habits of the mega-wealthy turned philanthropists.
In other developed countries, health care is fully funded by government and offered free-of-charge to citizens in hospitals built not by philanthropists but with government revenues. Here in America, however, we have embraced strange habits of preferential tax codes, sheltered income, and skewed regulations that facilitate the accumulation of vast individual fortunes while simultaneously allowing stratospheric healthcare costs to bankrupt ordinary middle-class families.
Like Robinhood in reverse, our Robberhood tax code takes from the poor and gives to the rich, and once the coffers of the mega-wealthy are overflowing with the spoils of our rigged economy, they then become society’s philanthropic “heros” by funding huge projects suitable to their equally huge egos. In this way we have constructed an American society displaying the greatest degree of wealth inequality in its 240-year history.
The nexus between healthcare, the mega-wealthy and government has resulted in equally distorted public health. The latest studies clearly show that the length of an American life-span is directly correlated to income; those with more money receive better care and live longer. Moreover, healthcare is the fastest-growing segment of the American economy. Despite the intentions of Obamacare, it has failed to stem the tide of increases in private health insurance premiums, and bankruptcies due to healthcare costs continue.
By privatizing healthcare in America, having now codified a government-mandated role for our largest profit-driven insurance companies, we’ve made it all but impossible to implement the type of universal, free healthcare found just across our border in Canada. To unwind the Gordian Knot now tying together individuals, families, businesses, insurance companies and government means dislocating an enormous portion of the country’s economy, a dislocation so severe as to risk stimulating a new depression. Now that’s depressing.
Those who made out like bandits after Glass-Steagall banking regulations were repealed by President Bill Clinton have now become cherished philanthropists who have rendered us dependent upon their “noblesse-oblige.” Decades of lowered tax rates on investment income combined with preferential stock options, golden parachutes and the like have irrevocably widened America’s income divide.
In the past such disparities literally fomented revolution, but in America’s modern society of 300 million-plus-people that’s not going to happen. In a material sense, we Americans are too comfortable, despite our social and economic inequities; cell phones are cheap, electricity widely available, refrigerators keep our food from spoiling, television, movies and the Internet can be seen by everyone. Bernie Sanders’ political “revolution” risks being squashed by voter apathy and a finance/insurance industry combine determined to insure its own survival.
This is, I suppose, the way it will be. Though I can imagine a different America, something more humanistic and equitable, I seriously doubt it will happen in my lifetime. Perhaps my grandchildren and their generation will eventually set things straight; I can only hope doing so does not require – as it has throughout history – the pain, suffering and bloodshed of violent revolution.