People in this country don't like to think about class. The myth we tell ourselves is that this is a class-free society. (Europeans would be first to chuckle over Americans' lack of class, but this isn't about manners, it's about entrenched socio-economic class barriers -- something Europeans know something about.)
Yet class barriers in America are real. It's not an aristocracy in the old feudal sense. For instance, unlike in old feudal societies, today, in theory, anyone can make it big and become wealthy. This is because there are no laws that explicitly make anyone an "untouchable" or certifiable serf.
Yet there are all the myriad little barriers that make it more and more difficult.
If you've been both poor and middle class, you know first-hand some of the little systemic benefits that come from being a bit more well off. One of the nice things when you're making more money is that everything starts to cost less -- especially when it comes to finances. Your credit card interest rates go down. Your checking account is suddenly free. If you have money, it's easier to borrow money to make more money.
When you're flat broke, you're flat, shit outta luck, and unless you have an education or the rare lucky break that affords you an opportunity to work for more than five bucks an hour (which equates to $10,000/year for full-time work), you're not going anywhere fast.
But hey, this is America! Nobody is guaranteed success! This is the litany of conservatives, offered as if it were a rebuttal to liberalism (thus implicity making the erroneous assertion that liberalism is about making everybody rich through government programs, which is just silly). And I agree: America is not about equal results, but rather about equal opportunity.
There are many ways in which our society denies equal opportunity to entire demographic racial and socio-economic classes of Americans, from unequal and inadequate education to a for-profit healthcare system that provides anything for people who can pay, but chooses shareholder dividends over basic services for some 40 million Americans.
But the topic du jour is bankruptcy.
One of the basic rights that the Founding Fathers wanted to establish in their new society in the New World was the right to declare bankruptcy if one was buried in debt. In England, the debtors' prisons were packed full. If you defaulted on a loan, you faced being pilloried. Some of our mean-spirited compatriots may relish the idea of pollorying fellow Americans, but back in the time of our Founders, it was considered an inappropriate punishment for debt.
The Founders -- especially (I believe) Benjamin Franklin and our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton -- saw the establishment of bankruptcy protections as necessary to encourage the risk-taking that is necessary for a free-enterprise economy to thrive. It was the simple recognition that if you face dire consequences of imprisonment if you fail, you're not very likely to take any risks in entrepreneurial enterprise.
Thus, bankruptcy was one of the founding principles of this Republic.
Feudalism and "The Ownership Society"
Now we are hearing claims that the dreams of our country's founding are outdated. Individual freedom is embraced in the conservatives' rhetoric, but not in their ambitions.
They are about to pass a "bankruptcy reform" bill that takes away many bankrutpcy protections -- but only for the poor. The wealthy will still be able to enjoy all the protections -- to a fault. (Consider how serial bankruptcy declarer Donald Trump is revered in our culture.)
What this bill really is is a step backwards towards the debtors' prisons of the Old World. Oh, they won't be locking anybody up just yet. But is it any different to have your meagre wages garnished for 20 years to pay off that emergency appendectomy you needed?
Yes, that's right. One of the most inhuman, evil parts of this "bankruptcy reform" that the Republicans are racing through Congress is that you will not be able to declare bankruptcy from medical bills.
So let's sum up the situation:
- The Bush Administration argues that the healthcare system must remain in the private sector.
- They defend and protect the practice of HMO, pharmaceutical and health insurance executives to make tens and hundreds of millions of dollars each year (each).
- They defend and protect the practice of these companies to chase after ever-increasing profits (which come at the expense of denying healthcare to premium-paying Americans).
- They defend and protect the practice of these companies to raise premiums so they can continue to have banner profit years.
- Meanwhile, some 40 million Americans cannot afford health insurance, and many who can do so at the expense of things they might do to improve the lives of their children.
- That means if you are working for minimum wage, your best healthcare policy is "Don't get sick."
- Because if you get ill or injured, you will have to pay for your healthcare cash on the barrel.
- Of course, the hospitals aren't cruel, so they are willing to provide emergency care to you at their premium prices (where, for example, you pay $12 for one aspirin) -- as long as you promise to pay them back. (What are you going to do, when you're bleeding to death? Haggle? Go hospital shopping?)
- Thus, because the system is rigged to favor wealthy profiteers over the health of the poor, you cannot pay for health insurance and have to go into steep debt to cover any emergencies.
- Now the Republicans don't think you've suffered enough, so now, even if you can barely feed your children, even if you're hardly making ends meet, they are making sure you can never ever declare bankruptcy because of medical bills.
- Oh, and if the hospital did something like amputate the wrong leg, well, Bush and the Republicans are working to prevent you from suing them.
- In other words, your misfortune is their opportunity, and they'll be damned if you try to get out of it and reclaim your own life.
Why pick on the poor? Maybe it's because the poor cannot fight back. Maybe it's because somehow they think that the poor don't deserve to live. Maybe it's just because they don't give a fuck about anybody but their own. Why should your heart bypass take priority over a healthcare executive's $200 million bonus? You goddam freeloader you!
Bush gets all self-righteous and indignant about any opposition to his plans to coddle the wealthy financiers of his political campaigns. He says, "Democrats are waging class warfare."
Here's the news break: It's the Republicans who are waging class warfare. And guess what, David -- they're taking away your sling. Goliath never had it so good.
More recommended reading: Maryscott O'Connor's eloquent and profane rant on bankruptcy.