My Veg Story by Glen Merzer

Glen Merzer

No need to go into every detail of the whole story of my life, but if I may, I would like to begin with my mother’s pregnancy with me. When I was seventeen, I learned a curious fact about that pregnancy.

The year before, my two uncles died, my mother’s two brothers, one in his fifties, the other in his forties, both of heart attacks. On my father’s side of the family, all the men died in their fifties, and my grandparents were dead before I was born, so I decided that if I ate the way these people ate, I’d be middle-aged at twenty-five.

My uncles’ deaths had set me thinking about becoming a vegetarian, and I decided to embark on that journey on the first day of summer vacation after my junior year in high school. That morning, I woke up and had an English muffin with jam for breakfast, and then the phone rang; it was my buddy Dave. I said, “Dave, congratulate me, I became a vegetarian.” He said, “That’s great. Since when?” I said, “Well, you know … since breakfast.” He laughed at me. And it’s a good thing that he laughed at me because it’s now been over 41 years without eating dead animals since that English muffin.

Dave, by the way, became a vegetarian himself a mere 25 years later, after seeing the movie Chicken Run. He was just morally outraged by the treatment of those Claymation figures. I should say he became a pescatarian; he still ate fish for awhile until he saw Finding Nemo. He’s not yet a vegan because they haven’t yet made a cartoon about cheese.

The next person to whom I told my news was my mother. I said, “Mom, guess what? I’m a vegetarian.” She said, “It’s about time, what took you so long?” I said, “What the hell does that mean?” She explained that when she pregnant with me, she was determined to raise me as a vegetarian, but the doctor talked her out of it, saying it would be dangerous for me, as my brain wouldn’t develop and my bones would be fragile and I wouldn’t grow up big and strong. So he scared her off her intention, thus cementing his claim on being the first doctor to ever harm me.

I said, “Wait a minute, Mom. You’re not a vegetarian, Dad’s not a vegetarian, Sheila (my sister) isn’t a vegetarian, so why were you going to raise me as a vegetarian?” She said, “Because, Glen, when I was pregnant with you, you felt like a vegetarian.”

I didn’t contest that statement. There was no point. I just asked, “Why didn’t you ever tell me that I was destined to be a vegetarian?” She said, “I was waiting for you to figure it out. What took you so long?”

Twenty years after turning vegetarian I would turn vegan. I would then meet my good friend Howard Lyman and work with him on the book Mad Cowboy, which was published in 1998 and has helped to turn many people vegan since.

Through my friendship with Howard Lyman, I got to know many of the leaders of the vegan movement in America. I learned more about the path I had chosen on instinct. And I learned that the correct human diet is actually not just a matter of choice or whim or opinion but is determinable through the science of comparative anatomy. Scientists examine the anatomical features shared by all mammalian carnivores, like cats, and the anatomical features shared by mammalian omnivores, like bears, and the anatomical features shared by mammalian herbivores, like the great apes. They look at the size of the oral cavity, whether the animal chews its food, the angle of the jawbones, the type of dentition, whether the saliva contains digestive enzymes, the acidity of the stomachs, the length of the intestines, the presence or absence of claws. And in every last characteristic, humans prove to be herbivores. Just like our primate cousins.

Yes, it’s true that male chimps will sometimes surround a monkey in the trees and grab it, slam it against the branches of the tree, break its neck and rip apart its living flesh. The male chimps will then give the female chimps some of the monkey meat in exchange for sex.

That is appalling behavior. It speaks to a view of romantic love that, in my personal opinion, borders on the cynical. But let’s be fair to the monkey-killing chimps—they’re not doing it for nutritional reasons. They’re doing it to get laid. When I was single, I did much worse.

I had no way to know it at seventeen, but the human taste for flesh was the primary reason we were chopping back the Amazon. And I certainly didn’t know it at seventeen, but the planet had begun melting, and the melting has accelerated, and the leading cause of the melting of the planet is animal agriculture.

Now I have no religion, so I’m not going to invoke God, but I can say this: it’s as if there were a God. It’s as if there were a God, and as if She were giving us a choice. We can keep eating animals and get fat and sick and leave billions of our fellow humans hungry and heat up the planet and devastate the earth, or we can eat plants.

It’s as if, like my mother, She’s waiting for us to figure it out, and wondering what’s taking us so long.

See Glen Merzer perform this story below:

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The Simple Alternative To Obamacare

I’m not in the camp of those (generally Republicans) who appear to believe that Obamacare is the greatest threat to Western civilization in our time. Nor am I in the camp of those (generally Democrats) who believe that Obamacare is a great achievement that is saving countless lives. Put me in the camp of those who think simply that it’s no big deal, but that it’s an unnecessarily complex law that has given government and the Democratic Party a bad name, while creating winners and losers in the private insurance market across the country. The losers generally revile the law; the winners, for the most part, shrug. That’s what makes the law a political loser for the Democrats. And put me in the camp (if there are others in this camp) who believe that, if only Obama hadn’t broken his campaign pledge by instituting a health insurance plan with the mandate that he had consistently opposed as a candidate, and if he had instead merely done as he had promised—instituting policies that would lower health insurance premiums—he would today be considered a wildly successful president who would still enjoy Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress. Many of his remarkable accomplishments have been overshadowed, effectively drowned out by the tireless furor over the mundane matter of health insurance.

Obamacare did solve, albeit in a mindlessly convoluted way, one pressing problem: the people who needed health insurance the most—people with pre-existing conditions—were being denied coverage by health insurance companies if, say, they lost their job and had to apply for coverage in the private marketplace. That was a moral abomination, and it needed fixing. But the fix could have been so simple that it boggles the mind that the Rube Goldberg contraption of Obamacare was instituted instead.

Before I elaborate upon the simple fix, let’s take a moment to consider the problem objectively. We live in a capitalist society. For better or worse, we have a largely privatized health delivery system, although it is not without a substantial socialist component (Medicare and Medicaid). I don’t have any particular ideological disagreement with a single-payer system in theory, but in political reality, it’s simply not in the cards for America to socialize medicine entirely in the foreseeable future. So let’s get real: any solution to the pre-existing condition problem needed to be addressed in the context of the health care delivery system that we have.

If I told you that an eighty-year-old smoker who had just suffered a massive heart attack and was just diagnosed with lung cancer had applied for a million-dollar term life insurance policy and was denied coverage, would you rant and rave about those greedy life insurance companies? Of course not. You would perhaps chuckle that a deathly ill eighty-year-old should have imagined he could obtain such a policy.

By the same standard, why in the world should a for-profit health insurance company provide a policy to someone scheduled for a triple-bypass or diagnosed with some expensive-to-treat disease? It’s obviously in their financial interest to decline such a person—and yet we all agree that everyone should have the right to a policy. Obamacare “solves” this problem by removing underwriting from the equation and forcing private insurance companies to provide policies to all who apply, but making it up to those insurance companies by mandating that all citizens get policies or face a fine, and allowing insurance companies to effectively overcharge the young and healthy to pay for the old and sick.

The young are suffering enough in our economy with the difficulty of finding good-paying jobs, and are often crushed with debt incurred by obtaining an education. Forcing them to pay high monthly premiums for policies they are unlikely to use in order to subsidize the old and sick seems patently unfair.

Here’s the elegant, simple solution: keep underwriting in the equation. Allow insurance companies to weed out those who are too expensive to insure. And upon receiving a notice of declination, those individuals would become automatically entitled to a federal health insurance policy—essentially a Medicare policy, designed to be the equivalent, say, of a “bronze” plan offered under Obamacare, at something like the price they would pay if not declined in the private marketplace. This policy was in fact part of Obamacare between the years 2010-2013, before the mandate kicked in, and it worked fine (except that, for some reason, there was a waiting period; there should be no waiting period; if you get declined, you should get a federal policy immediately).

Shifting a significant number of sick people from the private insurance rolls to Medicare would immediately have the effect of lowering insurance premiums dramatically on the privately insured (remember, under Obamacare, insurance companies have to spend at least 80% of revenues on claims, so they can’t pocket the savings), and would create a more fair system of pricing wherein the young are not overcharged to pay for the old and the sick. Each person’s premium would be a fair reflection of their individual risk. And while allowing underwriting back in the equation, we should also allow health insurance carriers to re-institute a surcharge (up to, say, 25%) for smoking and for obesity. That was a positive effect of underwriting that helped motivate people to stop smoking and to avoid cheeseburgers. Let’s stop pretending that health is entirely out of a person’s own control, and is only something that access to doctors can restore.

Is there any cost to the elegant solution? Sure. Medicare costs would rise. But that’s an easy enough problem to solve: all we have to do is either raise the funds to meet that added cost or else find Medicare savings elsewhere. I can give a hundred progressive suggestions for how to do that but here are five: 1) end or significantly reduce agricultural subsidies, which cost $100 billion per year, and which effectively cause so much of our national health crisis since most of those dollars go to subsidizing animal agriculture and the foods that are making Americans fat and sick; 2) step up Medicare fraud enforcement; 3) raise taxes on the richest Americans; 4) increase the estate tax on estates over $5 million; 5) end the practice of allowing Medicare to pay for unnecessary “preventive” screening, like mammograms or PSA tests.

So here’s how you fix Obamacare: 1) end the mandate to purchase health insurance; 2) guarantee a federal policy immediately to anyone declined in the private marketplace; 3) allow underwriting back in the equation and allow surcharges for smoking and obesity; and, 4) keep the positive elements of Obamacare in place (the Medicaid expansion, the 80% rule, the ability to stay on a parent’s plan until the age of 26, etc.) The subsidies provided under Obamacare need to be fixed, too; they should be simplified and should be based on last year’s income, not next year’s. We have now a preposterous system in which people get subsidies based on their projections of their next year’s income, and then could theoretically lose those subsidies retrospectively if their income goes up. That’s just nuts, and it makes people understandably angry.

But the worst sin of Obamacare isn’t that it’s unnecessarily complex or that it punishes the young and healthy. The worst sin is that it misdiagnosis the problem. The health insurance problem is minor when contrasted with our real health problem: we are the fattest, sickest civilization ever to walk the earth. Obamacare does nothing to fix that. Taking underwriting out of the equation certainly doesn’t help fix that. The only way to fix that is to change the food we eat. And one of the most constructive things government can do to change the food we eat is to end agriculture subsidies, so that the price of a cheeseburger goes to twenty bucks and people stop making themselves sick by eating animal products. The real solution to our health crisis is an end to animal agriculture.

And that just happens to be the same solution that is our only hope for reversing climate change.

There were 60 Democratic senators who supported Obamacare. 28 of them are gone from the Senate now. Certainly not all because of Obamacare, but no other reason is as salient. Was it worth it?

Going forward, let’s define the word “progressive” accurately. Working to end animal agriculture is progressive. Forcing people to buy a product from a private insurance company is not.

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The GOP’s Giant Problem

In 1988, the Democratic primary field of Gov. Mike Dukakis, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. Al Gore, Sen. Paul Simon, Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Sen. Gary Hart, and Rev. Jesse Jackson was widely derided, not only by Republicans, as “The Seven Dwarfs.” When Rep. Pat Schroeder briefly contemplated a run, the meme became “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

In the end, of course, Gov. Dukakis won the nomination and ran the most spectacularly incompetent general election campaign of modern times, managing to lose an election that was indeed his to lose, while of course carrying his home state of Massachusetts, where he astonishingly spent most of his time campaigning. He just didn’t seem to have an affinity for the rest of the country.

In 2016, the Republicans have a problem opposite to that of the 1988 Democratic dwarfs, and one that could be just as deadly for their general election prospects. They’ve got eleven or twelve giants.

Let me be clear. Not one of these men (yes, all men) is a moral giant, or a giant as a statesman or thinker or leader. But these are all political giants within the Republican firmament.

First there’s Jeb Bush, former two-term governor of Florida and member of the reigning dynasty in the Republican Party. Nobody’s got more access to power and money than Jeb Bush, or broader name recognition, and no other candidate (not even Marco Rubio) can guarantee carrying Florida. Alas, the name recognition isn’t exactly all positive, and the man’s moderate views on immigration cause him to be feared and reviled by the Tea Party base. Still, he is the leading candidate of the Republican establishment and is expected by all to be among the two or three strongest candidates in the field. Jeb Bush is a giant. Surely he’ll garner at least 20% of the primary vote.

Then there’s Gov. Chris Christie, the successful Chairman of the Republican Governors Association and formerly the darling of the Republican establishment, once viewed as the moderately conservative candidate who could save the Establishment from needing to turn again in desperation to the Bushes to hold back the unruly Tea Party base. But then he became a Nixonian figure, embattled in a scandal of his administration’s making, as his own staff weirdly caused traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge to enact a deranged form of political revenge on a mayor nobody had heard of. So far, no indictments have been forthcoming, but the scandal remains a cloud hanging over Christie’s head, the way Jeb’s last name is a cloud hanging over his own. Still, Chris Christie is the most skilled politician in the field, with easily the most colorful personality, and perhaps the strongest support of any candidate in the Northeast. Chris Christie is a giant, and not only in stature. Surely he can be counted on to carry at least 20% of the primary vote.

Then there’s Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian firebrand who begins by inheriting the long-established political operation of his father, perennial losing presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul. Sen. Paul is the most interesting and independent candidate of the lot, willing to work across the aisle with Democrats and to stake out positions on such matters as the drug war and diplomatic relations with Cuba that not only could appeal to Democrats and Independents (who can vote in some Republican primaries) but also appeal to young people and anyone with common sense, clearly a minority within the Republican base but not necessarily a negligible minority. Sen. Paul will be ganged up upon by the hawkish candidates (that will be almost all of them), but being ganged up upon and thereby standing out is not necessarily a bad thing in a crowded field. Paul has a troubling history of plagiarism and unenthusiastic support for the Civil Rights Act, but none of that should slow him down in a Republican primary. Rand Paul is a giant. Surely he’ll command at least 20% of the primary vote.

Then there’s Mitt Romney. He’s already begun hinting that he’s running. The man’s basically got nothing else to keep him busy. Without the presidency, his life is reduced to remodeling hell, building elevators for his cars at his ever-expanding home in La Jolla. He actually leads in all the polls, assuming he’s a candidate. His biggest problem: how does he manage to announce his candidacy, after unwisely laughing off the possibility of his running for the last two years? And what’s his rationale for running? With four governors (and former governors) likely to be in the field (Bush, Christie, Walker, and Kasich), he can’t claim that only he has the required executive experience. Yes, the whole damned situation is impossibly awkward, but he knows he has to run, for the country’s good. And if he runs, Mitt Romney is a giant. No way he doesn’t get at least 20% of the vote.

Then there’s Mike Huckabee. In an exit poll of Republican voters in the 2014 Iowa Senate election, he came in first in a list of potential 2016 presidential candidates, with 19%. A TV talk show star, he’s also a regular, down-home, religious Christian with recurrent weight problems, and what can be more American than that? The religious base of the Republican Party in Iowa loves this guy; they put him over the top in the 2008 Republican caucuses. No reason they can’t do so again, especially in a fractured field in which no other candidate (excepting perhaps Ben Carson) seems as religious. The other candidates dismiss Mike Huckabee at their own peril; the man, I kid you not, is a giant, and he’s just given a clear signal that he’s running by stepping away from his talk show. He should be good for 20% of the vote, especially if he’s already at 19% in Iowa.

Then there’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who stands as the giant whom the other giants fear. Cruz can even cut into the Wisconsin support of Sen. Ryan (and Gov. Scott Walker), since Cruz is in fact the living reincarnation of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Cruz owns the Tea Party base, the loudest and most vibrant and politically active constituency in the Republican coalition. He is a crackerjack orator, willing to say almost anything to garner media attention, and to play no-holds-barred hardball politics to force his fellow Senators and fellow candidates to take unnecessary and politically treacherous votes. Ted Cruz is a giant. The Tea Party will turn out in vast numbers in the primary, and so Cruz certainly cannot be held to under 20%.

Wait a minute. That’s only 6 candidates so far (assuming Mitt Romney can come up with an excuse to run, a pretty safe assumption) and we’re already up to their splitting at least 120% of the vote. You begin to see the problem. They clearly can’t all earn 20% of the vote. And it gets worse, because there are more.

There’s Sen. Marco Rubio, not so long ago viewed as the savior of the Republican party. It’ll be harder for him to run with Bush running, but he’s just brash enough not to back down. The young savior of the Republicans is arguably still a giant, and he knows what he’s doing when he picks a fight with Sen. Paul over Cuba: he’s staking out his foreign policy cred with the Republican base. He’s going to be the top Castro-and-Cuba basher in the field; nobody can outplay him on that.

Then there’s Gov. Scott Walker, winner of three elections in a little more than four years. Like his home-state colleague, Rep. Ryan, he splits the middle between the Tea Party nuts and the Establishment types. He’s truly a polarizing governor; the Tea Party loves that. Unnerving political scandals aside, Scott Walker is a giant, and surely each giant will get at least, well, are we down now to 12% of the primary vote?

Then there’s Ohio Gov. John Kasich. After a rocky start, he became a popular governor of the most important state for the Republican Party in the general election, the state without which they simply do not win general elections. He may lean towards the more sensible, Establishment side of things, but still he’s always been pretty far right, and he’s got legislative and executive experience. He’s not damaged goods like so many of the others. John Kasich is a giant.

And let’s not downplay the comeback try of Gov. Rick Perry. He’s got new glasses, a new look, and the same old loyal fundraising base that’s the class of the field, excepting only Jeb Bush. He’s had plenty of time to memorize the three Cabinet departments he’ll promise to shut down, and expectations for him are so low at this point that he can only exceed them. In that same exit poll of Republican voters in the 2014 Iowa Senate election, Perry actually came in second, with 17% support. Believe it or not, Gov. Perry remains a giant.

Then there’s the aforementioned Dr. Ben Carson. Who is Ben Carson? He’s Herman Cain on steroids. Herman Cain may have been a joke, but there was a time in 2012 when he actually led in the polls, before allegations of sexual harassment took him down. Why in the world did Herman Cain, some kind of nutty fast food businessman, lead Mitt Romney and the rest of the field for a time? Because he was a good talker (by the standards of the competition) and, I would argue, because he’s black. A lot of Republicans hate being labelled a white party, or a racist party. Herman Cain was their answer to that. Ben Carson will be their answer this time, and Ben Carson is smarter than Herman Cain. He’s a neurosurgeon and an author and, to top it off, he’s a religious fellow. Ben Carson, mark my words, is a giant.

Some other candidates will run, of course, of the non-giant variety. Rick Santorum will likely run (the fact that the guy who came in a close second last time isn’t even one of the giants shows you how bad the giant problem is), as will Carly Fiorina (she’ll likely be the only woman and the only CEO, and that should be good for at least a few votes). Sen. Lindsey Graham may run, complicating the South Carolina primary for the whole field. So if the non-giants split even 10% of the vote, that leaves 90% to be split among eleven or twelve giants.

It’s going to get ugly. Some of the giants will have to become giant-killers. That’s a problem for the Republicans.

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My Mother The Vegan

Glens MotherWhen I was seventeen, my mother started getting intense angina attacks whenever she walked up the flight of six stairs in our house. Her two brothers had just died of heart attacks, one in his forties and the other in his fifties, prompting me to become a vegetarian. My grandparents had died, mostly of heart disease, before I was born, and all the men on my father’s side of the family died in their fifties. And now I was scared of losing my mother. I said, “Mom, I’m giving up meat and you should, too. It killed your brothers, don’t let it kill you.” And she gave up red meat, though she didn’t yet give up chicken, fish, or dairy.

She was fifty-four years old at the time. I think about that now, at fifty-eight, and I can only imagine how scary it must have been to lose two brothers to heart disease within months and then get terrible chest pains walking up a short flight of stairs. She wasn’t overweight, or at least not more than a few pounds. She didn’t smoke. It would have easy to conclude that she just had terrible genes for heart disease and was doomed to have a short life.

Her doctor put her on a regimen of statin drugs and aspirin while she made her modest dietary changes. She didn’t go to doctors too often, although she did actually once manage to save my father’s life by making an appointment for herself with a dermatologist. She waits for the dermatologist in his office; he enters and says, “What can I help you with, Mrs. Merzer?” She says, “My husband. He’s in the waiting room.” The dermatologist goes into the waiting room and beckons my father into his office, where he examines and biopsies a growth on my father’s cheek that my father was unconcerned with. It was melanoma. He had an operation to remove all traces of the cancer more deeply at a hospital in Manhattan. I accompanied my parents, and just after leaving the hospital, as we’re crossing the street, my father with rare emotion embraces my mother and says, “Dottie, I’ll never forget that you saved my life. I will thank you every day for the rest of my life!” My mother breaks the embrace and says, “We’re in the middle of the street, you’re going to get us killed!”

Cut to about ten years later; my folks have just retired to Florida. I visit them, and they get in a fight over something stupid, as they occasionally did. My father’s very upset with my mother. I try to intervene by saying, “Pop, don’t you remember that day in Manhattan when you had the operation for melanoma and you embraced Mom in the middle of the street and told her that you would thank her every day for the rest of your life for saving your life?” He pauses a good long time. Then he says, “It doesn’t ring a bell.”

My father saved my mother’s life, too. In Florida, at about the age of seventy, she got a new cardiologist, the son of a childhood friend of hers. He does a scan of her arteries and tells her she has a 90% blockage and needs an immediate, emergency angioplasty. My father says, “Don’t listen to him; he’s just trying to make money. If you listen to him, I may have to divorce you.” The doctor becomes furious. “Who are you going to listen to, him or me? I’m a doctor; he’s not a doctor!” My mother says, “I’m going to listen to my husband; I don’t want to get divorced.” She never had the angioplasty, and the doctor “fired” her, refusing to ever see her again. I told her to get stricter with her diet, and become a real vegetarian. She adjusted her diet to give up chicken and almost entirely give up fish.

My father developed Parkinson’s, and when my parents were about eighty-six, I moved them both to California so I could help take care of him. I also took my mother to doctors, from whom she got about a half-dozen prescriptions, mostly for blood pressure and for her heart condition. And I started doing their food shopping and so willy-nilly they became low-fat vegans.

Parkinson’s took my father’s life at the age of eighty-eight, but he died with a strong heart. My vegan mother is today ninety-five-and-a-half. She has never had a cardiac event; I think we can say with confidence at this point that my father was right that she didn’t need that angioplasty twenty-five years ago. She just visited the doctor last week. He took her off her last medication; she now takes no drugs for anything. She has no need for adult diapers. Her mind is fully intact, and she reads a novel a week. She’s frail, and she has a walker, but she uses it mostly for exercise: she puts it in the living room, where she walks around it; then occasionally she moves it to the bedroom, and she walks around it there.

I wrote my first novel last year and gave it to her in the fall to be its first reader. She read it in a week. I asked her what she thought. She said, “It was good. Are you going to bring me another one next week? I’m running out of books.”

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The Shame Of Obamacare

SHAME OF OBABMACARE

I’m a left-wing guy, grew up in the anti-Vietnam war movement, went leafleting as a twelve-year-old kid for Eugene McCarthy and as a sixteen-year-old for George McGovern, worked for a populist Democratic candidate, former Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, against Jimmy Carter in New Hampshire in 1976, and supported Democrats and particularly progressive Democrats all my life. I don’t believe I’ve ever voted for a Republican and I’m second to none in my disdain for the modern Republican Party.

I was an early supporter of Barack Obama. I preferred him to Hillary for several reasons: 1) he opposed the Iraq war; she had voted for it; 2) I was embarrassed to live in a country that would elect Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton, like some sort of banana republic; 3) I found him the more eloquent and thoughtful candidate; 4) on the one domestic issue on which they disagreed, she supported a “universal health insurance” program with a mandate to purchase health insurance; he opposed the mandate and simply favored making health insurance more affordable so that more Americans could get themselves insured. “How are you going to enforce the mandate? Are you going to fine people or throw them in prison?” he would ask at debates, and she always ducked the question because she had no answer to give.

On health insurance, candidate Obama was right and candidate Clinton was wrong. Then he got elected and enacted her program. Nobody in the press called him on the betrayal of his campaign promise not to enact a mandate. And it’s been an unfolding disaster ever since.

Let’s put aside the policy debate for just a moment and focus on the politics. More than any other cause, Obamacare gave us the Republican House takeover of 2010. Perhaps they would have taken over the House anyway, given the slowness of the economic recovery, but surely not by such a wide margin. More than any other cause, it gave the Tea Party a broad base of inflamed supporters. After the Republican government shutdown debacle in the fall of 2013, the Democrats led in the generic ballot polls by some 10 points–a potential landslide that could have delivered the House back into Democratic control. Then came the debacle of the Obamacare rollout, and the Republicans surged ahead and once again shellacked the Democrats in the mid-terms. That huge swing was for one reason above all others: Obamacare. Was it really worth it? Was Obamacare worth the price of the Senate?

Don’t be fooled by the fact that House Republicans have voted some fifty times to repeal Obamacare. The truth is, they love Obamacare. It’s the only thing the Republican Party has going for it. The American people disagree with Republicans on every issue that matters: taxation, spending priorities, reproductive rights, marriage equality, minimum wage, energy policy, social security, Medicare–you name the issue, the Republican Party is out of touch. They would be a thoroughly marginalized, ineffectual party consigned to permanent opposition status were it not for the gift that never stops giving—Obamacare, the single issue on which the Republicans are more aligned with the voters than the Democrats.

What Obamacare does is create winners and losers. I have friends, a couple who are 58 years old, who two years ago, before Obamacare kicked in, paid for their own Anthem medical insurance (since neither gets insurance through work) for $495 per month. Because they don’t qualify for a subsidy, two years later their insurance costs, for a plan whose benefits are no better than the benefits they had two years ago, have skyrocketed to $1250 per month. In general, those in the private insurance market who don’t qualify for subsidies are the big losers under Obamacare; they are effectively helping to defray the costs that the insurance companies now are obligated to pay for those they previously would have denied insurance. The winners are those who receive subsidies and those who were previously denied coverage and can now get policies.

From a political standpoint, the problem is that the losers feel aggrieved, and the winners don’t always feel that their lives have been improved. If you are a healthy young person who used to willingly go without health insurance, and now you are a “winner” who has health insurance, even subsidized health insurance, you don’t necessarily feel your life improved with this new bill you have to pay monthly and this new, often annoying, bureaucratic entity called a health insurance company that you need to deal with. The political calculus of creating losers who get angry with your program and winners who often feel indifferent to it at best should not be hard to assess. It has been an unmitigated disaster for the Democrats.

But forget politics now; let’s look at it from a policy perspective. Isn’t Obamacare progressive, at least, as so many lefty pundits are fond of saying, in “providing health care to millions of Americans?” Not necessarily. First, it doesn’t provide health care; it provides health insurance. Let’s stop conflating the terms “health,” “health insurance,” and “health care.” It is entirely possible that someone with health insurance could have less, not more, access to health care than someone without it. Insurance is merely a business deal, after all, that you make with an insurer: you agree to pay a premium every month, and in return, the insurer covers certain types of costs, including of course catastrophic costs. Since health insurance companies make a profit, by definition that means that, in the aggregate, they come out ahead. If you add up what consumers will spend for the security of knowing they are protected from catastrophic costs (the cost of insurance) plus what they shell out yearly to meet their “out-of-pocket maximums,” that will be more than their total aggregate cost of health care. In the aggregate, consumers lose. Some of those consumers will be people struggling to pay the bills, whether they are low-earners or even middle-income people with a large family or high monthly expenses. Consider a consumer who has been in good health all year, has not seen a doctor, but is struggling to pay the bills, and one of those bills is her health insurance premium, let’s say $300 per month. It’s December, and she develops a pain in her leg. Does she go to the doctor? She hasn’t met her deductible yet, so there will be a cost, maybe $100, maybe more. She doesn’t go, because she can’t afford it. Had she not already shelled out $3600 that year in health insurance premiums, she could easily afford to go to the doctor. So having health insurance does not automatically mean more access to medical care; in some cases, it can mean less.

But it’s true that, in the main, having health insurance gives the consumer more access to medical care, or at least makes the consumer more willing to go to a doctor to get some value out of the health insurance dollar already spent willy-nilly. Still, going to the doctor doesn’t rank in the top ten factors affecting health outcomes. Diet and lifestyle are far, far more important factors in health outcomes than doctor visits. In fact, where the medical system does rank in the top ten is in causes of death: it is the third leading cause of death in America (according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (http://www.health-care-reform.net/causedeath.htm), usually estimated at 200,000 deaths or more per year, although some experts think the number is far higher.

So there’s really nothing terribly progressive in a health insurance reform (Obamacare) that forces people to buy insurance from a private company, imposes a fine on those who feel they can’t afford it, creates winners and losers, creates resentment of government, motivates people to embrace a medical delivery system that may not be in their own best interest, and helps sweep Republicans into office. There was one notable accomplishment of Obamacare, and that was to end the obscene practice of denying people coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions. But that was an easy enough problem to solve without the convoluted contraption of Obamacare, as I explain in The Simple Alternative to Obamacare.

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