Dark Side of the Sun: Doctor, I have this pain…

Mike Corrigan

Mike Corrigan


By Mike Corrigan

BN Columnist

I heard again the other day Texas Gov. Rick Perry contending that the United States has “the No. 1 medical system in the world.” I wonder, by what criteria is this assessment made?

We do spend the most, that’s for certain; in spending we are No. 1 by all measures. Among 36 developed countries, the United States can’t be challenged in spending per capita — but we are way down the list for life expectancy: 78.7 years. We spend $8,508 a year per capita for health care; Norway is second, at $5,669. Evil old France spends $4,118, and their citizens’ life expectancy rate is 82.2 years. Of course, we’re richer, right, that’s why we can spend so much more than everyone else? Not quite. Here are the top expenditures on public health as an expression of annual Gross Domestic Product:

United States 17.7%, Holland 11.9%, France 11.6%, Germany 11.3%, Canada 11.2%, etc. The United States is number one in spending money, no matter how you cut it. Surprisingly, we are also No. 1 in one area of efficiency: our public health spending (Medicare, Medicaid) is the least expensively administered of the public health programs among all industrialized nations. (We also boast the only political party in the Western world on record against national health care: those efficiency experts, the Republicans.)

And Obamacare is no answer, either. It is based on a Mitt Romney Massachusetts program, one modified by the health insurers themselves, and it addresses none of the festering issues (paper-shuffling insurance companies, litigious patients, test-crazy medicos, pharmaceuticals that charge American health consumers well above world market prices.)

We hear a lot, too, about how our schools are failing. Okay, in education, the slogan is: We’re Not No. 1. Shout it from the rooftops, no sense denying it. But did you know that, in this country, our relative educational failures are almost entirely a product of our child poverty rates? In recent international testing in math, science and reading, United States’ students finished on top — yes, we are No. 1 — if only those districts where the poverty rate is below 20% are counted. Why are our overall test scores so mediocre then? Well, we are No. 2 in the industrialized world in child poverty, edged out only by Mexico, so that naturally drives our scores down. The UN Children's Fund reports these international rates of child poverty:

Mexico 26.2%, U.S. 22.4%, Italy 20.5%, UK 19.8%, Turkey 19.7%, Ireland 16.8%, Canada 15.5%. But when was the last time you heard Congress debating a fix for child poverty? Unless you have a long memory, never — unless it's to deny that it’s a problem. They they'll they cut Head Start.

Don’t believe child poverty rates have a crucial bearing on test scores? Finland and Norway, which test in the top three annually in educational assessments, have these rates of child poverty: 4.3% and 3.9%.

The results are in. We’re not quite No. 1. But all we hear about is how things must be cut, how it’s government’s fault, how chopping food stamps and long-term unemployment insurance must be only the beginning of even greater and greater measures of austerity. News alert to Washington's Democrats and Republicans: America will never fix its most fundamental problems if your only measure of national health is how the Stock Market is doing, and your measurement of your own political acumen is the size of your next lobbyist kickback check.

Companion news alert to Americans: these jokers are right, in a basic sense: because you are also part of the nation’s fundamental problem — if you're waiting for big business to care or for big government to help. Don’t hang around hoping the cavalry will arrive — save yourself. Personal responsibility, people. This is America. It’s every man for himself. Women and children, you’re on your own.

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