How like Nigeria

I know a former missionary to Nigeria, a country infamous for its Internet scams. She describes it as a land in which honor is nonexistent, money counts for everything, and people learn to cheat one another from the cradle. I didn’t believe her because, as I imagined, societal cohesion depends upon trust more than law, so if you create an environment in which no one can trust anyone, you destroy the possibility of a cohesive society. She stood her ground, saying that the kind of greed and manipulation that people in this country associate with the worst of the worst—Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers—is status quo in Nigeria where to be honest is to be a sucker. I’ve since come to wonder how different America is from Nigeria. I’ll outline the reasons for my concern by sharing a few news items and personal experiences from the past couple of weeks.

1) The number of people imprisoned in the US has risen by 800% in the past 30 years making us the world’s leader in locking up our own people. One reason for the increase is that US prisons have increasingly come under private management, and before a company will agree to manage a prison, the government must agree to maintain an occupancy rate of 90%. Rehabilitation hell! We need people in prisons, or at least Prison, Inc. and the government officials who negotiate the contracts do, and they’re the ones in charge. Why else would 60% of the prison population have been locked away for non-violent crimes?

2) Next month, I’ll be eligible for Medicare, which is government-run health insurance for people who are old or disabled (taxpayers pay into the system throughout their working lives in order to benefit from it when they need it). Because Medicare isn’t sufficient to keep a person from going bankrupt due to medical expenses, the government works with private insurers whose job it is step in where Medicare leaves off. There are dozens of these insurers, and they offer dozens of different plans that cover various things and include various extras. Determining which insurer and which plan is best is impossible unless you have a staff of lawyers who are versed in alphabet soup and willing to read through one 150-page policy book after another, each of which is meant to defy comprehension. Why, if the goal is to provide health care to those whose minds and bodies are growing weaker due to age and/or disability, doesn’t the government create a simple system under which the policies of these private insurers can be easily understood and compared or, better yet, eliminated altogether? My guess is that such a system would defeat the goal, which is to make money for private insurers.

“But why, you might ask, does the government care about making money for private insurers?” Because those insurers provide politicians with massive campaign contributions, expensive gifts, and private sector sinecures. But why does selling incomprehensible insurance policies to Medicare recipients enable insurance companies to make more money?” Because it eliminates cost-versus-quality competition. It’s like when you go to buy a mattress, and every store has a different name for the same product. By making it impossible for customers to compare prices, stores can compete on the basis of window-dressing rather than cost or quality, and this means more money for everyone, except the consumer. What makes this obfuscation especially immoral in the case of Medicare—and keeping people in prison—is that it harms those who are the least able to protect themselves—the ignorant, the impoverished, the mentally challenged, and the taxpayer.

3) There was a time when only loan sharks charged 30% interest, but the fools didn’t know enough to buy the government so that they could do it legally. Who do you turn to when you can’t pay your medical bills or you’re facing foreclosure? Chase and Citibank are there for you when you think things can’t get any worse, but what happens when things do get worse, when the medical bills keep coming, the bank keeps threatening your home, and you can no longer use your credit cards to juggle your bills because you can no longer afford the minimum monthly payments? Maybe it’s the time to remind yourself that America is “the land of opportunity,” the land that every politician calls the fairest, the most generous, and the most compassionate nation on earth?

4) When the bills came in for my latest round of physical therapy, I noticed that I had never once received what I was charged for—entire series of 15-minute ultrasound sessions, 15-minute manual manipulation sessions, 15-minute exercise sessions, and 15-minute cervical traction sessions. When I finally found someone other than the therapist to complain to, he responded as follows about Oregon Medical Group’s billing policy: “…the Physical Therapist can provide anywhere from 8 minutes to 22 minutes and bill for 15 minutes of therapy.” No session ever ran over 8 minutes.
5) Reminisce Magazine. Its writers receive no compensation for their stories and photos, and the company that owns Reminisce owns a slew of other quaint publications. Peggy likes Reminisce because it takes her back to the ‘50s when she believed her parents could protect her from serious harm, when—as she remembers it—people were kind and noble, and America was admirable. I want Peggy to have a magazine that brings her such joy, and I wish in retrospect that I had kept its ugly little secret to myself, its secret being that, as soon as you subscribe—and Reminisce encourages its readers to subscribe for years at a time—it starts sending renewal notices that begin with “This is your last chance to keep Reminisce coming…” but don’t give you a clue as to when your current subscription expires. Like most cheats, Reminisce preys on a vulnerable population. 

6) But what of the rest of us? Is it even possible to be an ethical American? I’ve focused on those who get rich by hurting people, but what of the millions who work as cogs in the rich people’s wheels, the ones who staff the magazine subscription centers; who administer the “Medicare Advantage Plans;” who work in the prisons; who turn people away because they can’t afford medical care; who, in order to have a secure retirement, invest in companies whose policy is profit before all; all these plus the 300-million people whose taxes finance America’s wars and war crimes, its profit-driven destruction of our environment, its arrogance, its greed?

That which I wondered about Nigeria, I now wonder about my own country. What cohesion binds a nation of people who equate morality with doing the legal minimum, who elect conservative politicians for the purpose of abolishing such legal protections as still stand between big business and the consumer, and between the patient and the healthcare industry? How far do we have to go before we’re like Nigeria, and what will be the cost when we are? I think Peggy is right about the old days in that, despite some significant human rights gains, too many of the gains America has made have been technological, and too many of the losses have been in such areas as trust, idealism, and community. Pay attention to the news and current culture. Look at the filth that is on TV; observe the isolation of people on cellphones; note the abuse that is commonplace in Internet discussion forums; listen to the venom of talk radio. Things which once would have been unspeakably rude, tacky, vulgar, trashy, mean-spirited, greedy, self-abasing, and self-centered, are now the norm. The biggest difference between today and much of my life is that Americans used to be optimists. Even during the darkest days of the ‘60s, the feeling was that positive change could and would come. When was the last time you heard anyone but a politician say that? 

I know that this post proves nothing, but for those of us who remember an era when houses were seldom locked and bicycles didn't even have locks, experience means a lot, and twenty years of dropping crime rates matters but little. I pity those who have never known this country to be any way but what it now is because, despite its former faults, there was a time when I could say with a straight face that America stood for that which was good.


rhymeswithplague said...

I may be mistaken but aren't you going to be 62 on your next birthday? That makes you eligible to receive Social Security at 80% if you like (or you can wait until you are 65 or even 70 and get higher percentages), but it does not make you eligible for Medicare. Medicare kicks in when you turn 65 as far as I know.

If I am wrong I profusely apologize, but the age Medicare coverage begins is something you should check out to make sure.

Stephen Hayes said...

It troubles me that I'm not able to write a half dozen paragraphs proving you wrong about the current state of morality and ethics in America. Unfortunately, I believe you're right.

All Consuming said...

Nigerians are just more honest about their scams and cheating. I'd rather a wolf be a wolf any day. America is as heartless, cruel and greedy as Rome was, and it isn't on it's own by far. Then are us, small hands pushed up in the crowds questioning, rubbing our eyes and choosing to be awake, rather than the cattle-like masses, fear fed and mooing as the conveyor belt trundles us along past hung carcasses that can't possibly be our fate. Ignorance is bliss they say. I'll stick with you in your boat mind. For all the good it does us. No. It is better to know your enemy without doubt. Spot on post. x

Snowbrush said...

"I may be mistaken but aren't you going to be 62 on your next birthday?"

I'll be 65 on March 1, which is early enough in the month that I will start Medicare on February 1. As for Social Security, I started drawing that almost three years ago.

"Unfortunately, I believe you're right."

In relation to this post, I was going to criticize the well-known quotation by Plato ("The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise"), but was delighted to discover that a young fellow wrote it for his college dissertation in 1907:

This doesn't much relate to your comment, but I know you're the kind of scholar who would enjoy knowing about it.

" the cattle-like masses, fear fed and mooing as the conveyor belt trundles us along past hung carcasses that can't possibly be our fate."

You're speaking of America's political party for the rich, and you don't even live here. Ha. Anyway, it's very much the view of conservatives that helping the poor only encourages them, this accompanied by the belief that those who think this way couldn't possibly themselves someday become poor because they're too smart and too favored by God.

Winifred said...

Sadly most of the developed world is moving in that direction. Capitalism gone mad!

Snowbrush said...

"Medicare kicks in when you turn 65 as far as I know."

Except in the case of disability. BTW, I bought my Medicare Supplement policy through an insurance company in your lovely state, State Mutual of Rome, Georgia. You ought to read the Wikipedia entry about them:

"Sadly most of the developed world is moving in that direction. Capitalism gone mad!"

That's what I hear from bloggers in England, Canada, and Australia. I've turned against capitalism because, while any system can be exploited, its modus operandi is exploitation, and where it doesn't exploit, it's only because the government is strong enough to stop it from exploiting, and that's what we're losing in America where the powerful are completely dependent upon the wealthy to keep them in power. America is in desperate need of limits on campaign spending, but, of course, it's opposed by those who control the government. I truly despair. The people as a whole could get mad enough to turn things around, but so many of them believe the propaganda.

Charles Gramlich said...

A sad state of affairs, and yet I can't really argue with much of it. I am appalled regularly at the greed and meanness of the basic human.

Linda said...

I was born in 1946, and I remember a more innocent time. Those days had social ills, but there was something appealing that I miss. Of course, being young had its appeals as I look

I am not so sure that capitalism is to blame for the loss of innocence. I have for a long time thought that Constitutional Checks and Balances within the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of the government are failing to be applied. However, since business controls government in D.C., I suppose that capitalism is at the bottom of our problems. Capitalism worked well until the greed of the owners of the means of production moved most endeavors from the reach of people who did not own the means of production.

Okay, am I rambling? I will stop.

Strayer said...

I came to understand the manipulation taught maybe inbred around here, when trying to help people get their cats fixed. People will promise anything, like help later, donations later, to get what they want, then laugh afterwards, that they got what they wanted without delivering on a promise to contribute. I came to see it as an art form in this area, a cherished value, didn't know if it was practiced everywhere as extensively here. Manipulation to serve ones' own needs and screw the person helping and all promises made to manipulate that help. Kindness is already seen where I live as a weakness. I have to hide the fact or play the apologist for helping out cats. That's a sad state, I think.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

I stillthink most American people are good natured and not looking to scam their neighbors. Our government is corrupt as hell but... that's another story.

When I was in college (USM - Go Eagles!), an economics professor pointed out that the most popular magazine in America was TV Guide and it sent renewals out 8 months early. And how, if all the subscribers sent their fees in that early, how many millions in working capital it provided the publisher. While that paltry sum might not be much to us as individuals but it meant a huge fortune to the big publishing company. From that day on, I NEVER paid a bill more than one week ahead of time! And with the internet, I never pay more than a day!

PhilipH said...

Sadly you are perfectly correct in your statements Snowy. It is a wicked world, but it was ever thus for the multitude.

Life in "the good old days" was harsh for the multitude in the UK and we have at least stopped sending kids up chimneys to clean the soot off.

We've all had the Nigerian scam letters but only an idiot would fall for such rubbish. And those who DID fall for it deserved all they lost.

But in today's capitalist world we seldom have a way of evading the scams that are forced on us by big business and governments. In that respect the Nigerian scammers are honourable in that we can see through their greedy projects and ignore them.

Churchill quote: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947).
Try reading "Wild Swans" and you will find that even communism is as bent as a corkscrew in so many ways.

I shall be 80 in 12 months time and so glad that I won't have to struggle through years of worsening greed in the 'civilised' world.

Joe Pereira said...

A sad indictment of a once great nation ravaged by decades of right-wing and centre-right politics, without the necessary counter-balance of socialism. By contrast, Democratic socialism has been the order of the day in Scandinavian countries, where, according to UN stats, the best quality of life on our planet is found. Poignant post Snow

Chartreuse said...

Oh dear. And here am I on a program to try and go off anti-depressant meds. May need to switch to reading someone else's blog for a while, I guess. But yes, what you say is oh so true - less so here in Australia but it's only a matter of time before our politicians get their way and succeed in whittling away some of the advantages (dare I say human rights?) we still enjoy (taxpayer-funded universal health coverage being one of the big ones).

lotta joy said...

I turn 65 in July and I had three phone calls within minutes this morning, selling insurance.

Since Detroit has been ruined by the very people who should be in prison, I don't know a better answer for prison over crowding that to wall up the entire city and toss all the prison population in there to fend for themselves.

A Cuban In London said...

It's refreshing to read an American on America offering a point of view that detracts from the official "land of opportunity". However, I would say to you that your country is not the only one that creates false expectations. You asked me for my opinion of the US in relation to my country of birth, Cuba, and I would say that what your government has done accounts for 50% approximately of our misfortunes. The other 50% I blame on our self-inflicted embargo.

A very good and interesting post. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

possum said...

the feeling was that positive change could and would come. When was the last time you heard anyone but a politician say that?
Um, anybody remember that hopey changy stuff that so many of us wanted to believe in just 2 elections ago? Or did we just vote to get rid of the shame Bush brought to this country... only to find out it now seems to be a permanent part of doing business here.
A sad post, Snow... sad because of the truth (as usual).

Joe Todd said...

Read several posts Snow.. Sorry about all the pain.. can't help you there.. As far as the "state of the U.S.A. or world for that matter" I think there will be some Catastrophic changes in the relative near term though I doubt either you or I will be here to see them.. and I'm really not a doom/gloom guy.. Wish you the best..