Health Care, Pensions and Broken Promises

Sixty-seven percent of the population of the
United States supports universal health care. Pension funds are changing the
rules. Both issues, health care and pension funds, are about moral commitments
and moral consistency. If we break our promises we undermine a fundamental
social contract that was hard-won and that has served the nation
well.

The problem of access
to quality health care
at affordable rates is
one of the most serious
social problems we face.
Over the past 30 years,
the infusion of market
principles and values
into the health care
industry have almost
completely transformed
health care into a
commodity to be
consumed only by
those who can
afford it. Today,
nearly 43 million
Americans do not
have any health
insurance at all.
–Civil Society Institute

Business Week reports that concern about private Social Security accounts, coupled with the rising costs of health care is creating a constituency for universal health care and against private accounts.

The dismantling of the social safety net that is well underway is not favored by the majority. However, it continues apace because the political process is not responsive to these concerns yet. However, the whole context of corporate scandal, pension fund uncertainty and stagnating wages could be feeding the skepticism of ordinary folks that they can’t trust the private sector with things as important as health care and pensions.

It’s hard to imagine anything worse for those who propose the “ownership society” than the demise of a major corporation’s pension fund. Pension funds are based on a promise. Give us your time and do this work and we will set aside money to provide you security later in life when you can’t work or don’t want to. A promise only works when both sides trust that each will fulfill their part of the agreement.

The guys at Enron wrecked lots of lives by stealing or deflating in value the 401Ks of a lot of working people (by creating a system of corporate shells built on fantasy), not only employees but investors. United made a promise to its workers that it has now broken. The government, that is all of us together, has become the guarantor of last resort to fulfill the promise.

A lawyer in the United case said on NPR recently that this action (to allow United to default on its pension promise) represents a culture change. Corporations are no longer required to live up to their promise to workers for pension benefits. Undoubtedly this will change the type of fund workers can contribute to, and it will place even more responsibility and cost on the worker and less on the corporations.

These are not mere economic choices. These are moral choices. Why do those who are so vocal about private, personal issues in the constellation of “traditional values” remain silent on these issues that have much more significance for millions of people? It can hardly be said to be unimportant. It’s an issue of well-being that affects every worker in this society. So, how can we not view it as a moral concern?

A poll by the Civil Society Institute finds that 67% of the population of the United States favors universal health care. My guess is that we have dealt enough with the current system to know that it is broken and wasteful. And I suspect, but can’t prove with attitudinal research yet, that we don’t trust the corporate interests that run it to reform and create a better, more efficient system. They’ve had their chance and things are getting worse.

What this means is that social justice is not an abstract set of principles that floats around in the ether. Social justice is as direct and personal as your next visit to your doctor, your mother’s next prescription drug order, your grandmother’s next surgery and your own paycheck deduction as you save for your future. Social justice is about a whole lot more than a select few issues. It’s about how we are treated everyday and how our lives are affected by the practices of corporations and government. It’s about fairness. It’s about keeping promises. It’s about holding everyone accountable to live up to their agreements.

It’s been a long, hard struggle to get the social safety net in place, and it was created precisely because injustice was so harmful, painful and obvious. What is being undermined by greedy corporate executives and the practices of some corporations is a social contract that has stood us well over the lifetime of the nation. That we are accountable to each other and for each other. That’s a moral issue.

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