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Monday, November 01, 2004

I may have to take Wal-Mart's side on this

States across the nation are concerned that Wal-Mart's miserly health-care benefits package results in too many Wal-Mart employees and/or their dependents being enrolled in state-supported healthcare programs or making them rely on charity care by hospitals. California has an initiative on tomorrow's ballot which would require Wal-Mart to either provide affordable health care or contribute to a state insurance pool, and Washington state may follow suit. This might result in a modest improvement in healthcare for Wal-Mart workers, it might ease the burden on already depleted state budgets, and it might even eat into Wal-Mart's profits and its ability to undercut competitors and monopolize markets, all of which are good things. But fundamentally the proposals are steps in the wrong direction, towards further tying access to healthcare to employment. The two issues are and should be completely unrelated. The NY Times article quotes the CEO of one of Wal-Mart's competitors:
"Socially, we're engaged in a race to the bottom," said Craig Cole, the chief executive of Brown & Cole Stores, a supermarket chain that employs about 2,000 workers in Washington and adjoining states and pays for insurance coverage for about 95 percent of its employees. "Do we want to allow competition based on exploitation of the work force?" he asked.
It sounds like Craig's heart is in the right place, but his brain has apparently been on sabbatical for the last 200 years or so. Exploitation of the work force has been the primary element of much of world capitalism, and certainly is at the core of Wal-Mart's success.

Last week, the Times ran an op-ed on why a for-profit healthcare system just doesn't, and can't work to provide adequate care for all. What is needed is a single-payer, universal health care system like Canada's. And to make that viable, the obscene income gap in this country has been closed. I've heard from Canadians that a problem with their system arises because wealthy Candadians aren't fully on board with it, and will cross the border and pay for expensive US doctors and hospitals to get care more quickly, an option not available to most Canadians. The huge wealth disparity is truly tearing our country apart, as support for public schools, municipal water systems, and just about anything intended for the public good wanes among the wealthy who can afford private alternatives. Getting the wealthy people who have fled the cities for the suburbs in the past half-century to care about education or clean water for those less wealthy who were left behind has been a losing battle. Convincing them to care for their health problems seems to be an equally daunting task. At times in America, it was widely believed that "we're all in the same boat." Now, the majority of us may be in the same leaky old boat, but it gets continually swamped by the wake of the rich folks' yacht.

And I'd suggest that there will eventually be a solution to this, but it won't be in a form that will make a lot of people happy. The rich folks won't be helping the poor to fix their boat. The poor will give it a decent effort, but won't have the resources to overcome the constant wakes swamping them. But what will happen is that the yacht will eventually start having troubles of its own. It's already running out of fuel. The foreign mortgage-holders may decide to repossess any day now. The stocks paying the caviar bills may collapse to nothing in the inevitable economic meltdown. So, eventually, the yacht will be taking on water and lying leaky and low just like the big boat. Whether the people on the two boats decide then to try and work together, or just decide to try and make sure the other boat sinks first even if it causes their own to sink, remains to be seen.