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It’s time to stand up to big business

It’s time to stand up to big business

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Wendell Potter looked at the health care bill proposed by Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus and saw within it “more than the insurance industry could have hoped for.”

Potter is a former executive at Cigna who has become a vocal critic of his old industry and its attempts to manipulate reform. The Baucus plan, he says, is the result of a political process dominated by corporate interests, complete with language that could have been written by lobbyists. And Potter is far from alone. There is little doubt who calls the tune in Washington.

Remember, this is a bill floated by the Democrats, who were supposed to offer some improvement over the previous Republican Congresses, which operated proudly as wholly owned subsidiaries of Big Business. So far there’s been more hope than change, and a K Street address still awes our elected representatives.

That’s one reason the health care debate is so important. Vital as it is to bring our insurance system up to standards taken for granted in the rest of the industrialized world, the fight over reform also serves as a proxy for a larger battle under way about the role of government.

I’m not talking here about the road to socialism, although some people have an ideological aversion to any government role in health care beyond the popular programs that already serve millions of Americans, and do so without turning us all into Bolsheviks. There is another critical question, not so much about the size of the public sector as whom the public sector serves — whether we have a government by the people and for the people, or one that serves corporations, often at our expense.

We are as a nation suspicious of power. It’s a distrust encoded in our political DNA, dating back to the founding of the republic, and deeply ingrained in our culture. Most often, we think in terms of political power and its threats to liberty, and with good reason.

But government is not the only power to be reckoned with, and sometimes it serves as a necessary counterbalance to other forms of influence.

Suspicion of commercial interests was evident in the days of the Founders (they also believed that government could be too weak, which is why they took a mulligan and wrote the Constitution after the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate). Thomas Jefferson said that he hoped to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations.” His successors, including Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, achieved greatness — and helped save capitalism — by standing up to corporate power.

Now, after a generation in which the clout of big business has grown enormously, and respect for the useful machinery of the marketplace has mutated in some quarters into something close to idolatry, we need to rethink the common belief that says government is always the problem.

You might suppose that the implosion of the financial sector, a catastrophe enabled to a great degree by the deregulators and market worshippers, would have made this clear, but received wisdom does not die easily.

Talk about socialism: We’ve been so busy making sure that bankers stay rich that we have yet to reform their industry. And of course those moneyed corporations keep flogging their self-serving mythology through the think tanks they fund, and the rallies they help underwrite, and the political influence they buy in bulk. These folks spend billions each year on advertising; they know something about shaping public opinion.

Anyone who has dealt with the phone company, or a big bank, or, yes, a health insurer, knows that corporate bureaucracy and red tape are no great improvement over the government variety. And because business is about making money, not serving the needy or the common good, there is reason to think that the profit motive simply fails to address all of the contingencies found in the health care realm.

The larger issue here, though, goes beyond customer service, or accountability, or access to primary care. It’s the question of who really controls our government, and what master government serves — the people or the moneyed interests. However powerful business might be, allowing it to set government policy is like putting it on steroids.

The most famous warning of this danger was sounded by President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican war hero who cautioned against the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Looking at the close relationships today between big government and agribusiness, oil companies, private security firms, the prison industry, and many others, Eisenhower would think we ignored him completely.

Insurance companies do a lot of good things, and a lot of good people work for insurance companies. Government is not the solution to every problem, and the reforms most likely to be adopted for our health care system involve substantial private-sector options. There will never be a perfect balance between power centers, and there will always be a need to test and realign the balance between them over time.

But at this moment, in this fight for reform, it’s clear that the corporations are the ones with too much power.

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