WE DON'T NEED NEW IDEAS; WE JUST NEED TO STOP HAVING OLD ONES
When I got off the plane in Amsterdam last Saturday, I walked across the
terminal to a clean, efficient train system that could take me to anywhere in
Europe. I was headed for Groningen in north Holland. I didn't have to wait
long; trains to the north come through every half hour.
Why don't we have a rail system like that? Two main reasons, I'd guess. The
auto and oil industries are against it. And we won't let ourselves think of
paying for it the way the Dutch do -- partly through ticket sales, but largely
through (gasp!) taxes.
* * *
I went to Groningen to say good-bye to my friend Wouter, who is dying of
cancer. During four years of chemotherapy and surgery, Wouter has never had to
worry about paying a medical bill. No HMO bureaucrat has denied him a test or
procedure. When his wife Nanda decided to take an extended leave to care for
Wouter, she could do so without losing either job or pay. The government would
have supplied a home nurse, she told me, but she wanted to be home herself.
Every remaining day is precious.
If you compare public support for that family in Holland with what a family
would receive under similar circumstances in America, you have to wonder why we
are so cruel.
It's not that a national health system would cost too much. Per capita health
care costs in Holland are half of ours. It's not that our medical care is
better. Dutch life expectancy is higher than ours, and their infant mortality
rate is 30 percent lower. Our system does not give us more freedom to choose a
doctor or treatment -- have you had to battle lately with an HMO? The real
reasons for our overexpensive, inhumane medical system are, again, two. It
makes piles of money for some companies (drug, insurance, hospital). And we
won't take seriously the idea of a system paid for by (gasp!) taxes. Any such
thought is dismissed as "socialized medicine" and declared unworkable, though
we need only look beyond our borders or at our own Medicare to see
public-funded health systems that work just fine.
* * *
On the way home from the Netherlands I read about global fisheries in the
Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World 1998." Two-thirds of commercial
fish species are in decline. Catches in the Northwest Atlantic are down by 40
percent, in the Southeast Atlantic by 50 percent, in the Black Sea by 80
percent. The average swordfish caught used to weigh over 250 pounds; now it's
65 pounds, too immature to breed.
How can we -- and this time I mean not just the U.S., but the national managers
of nearly every fishery -- allow systematic overfishing? How can anyone be
stupid enough to catch fish before they reach breeding age? Yet governments
not only fail to control fisheries, they actually provide tax incentives,
low-interest loans, and other subsidies to overfishing. In 1989 global fishing
brought in $70 billion and cost $124 billion. Much of the $54 billion loss was
covered by (gasp!) taxes.
Why will we tax ourselves to destroy a valuable resource but not to run a
decent transport or health care system? To save jobs, we are told, as if jobs
in publicly subsidized fisheries are real but jobs in publicly run trains or
hospitals are not -- and as if jobs in fisheries can somehow be propped up by
money while the fish disappear. Where do we GET these ideas?
* * *
I got stuck in Washington and had to spend a night in a hotel. I used the
opportunity to scan the TV channels -- our TV at home only gets two channels,
neither worth watching. I discovered that the others aren't worth watching
either. Aside from ads, all I saw was fists socking into flesh (with
appropriate crunching sounds) and people shooting people, who crumpled neatly
to the ground.
The next day when I got home the latest news story was about kids shooting down
kids in a schoolyard. Adolescents in camouflage suits with guns. Doing what
they've seen thousands of times, since they were old enough to push the "on"
button. Get mad, shoot, watch someone crumple neatly to the ground.
Why do we allow our public airwaves to carry nonstop, powerful images that
corrupt our kids? Because someone makes a bundle from it, and because we have
the idea that private, profit-making activity is inherently pure, while public
regulation is inherently corrupt. Why do we allow anyone to have a lethal
weapon without even as much training, registration, and inspection as we
require for a car? Because the gun-makers give large amounts of money to our
government and constantly imbue us with the patently crazy, demonstrably
dangerous, socially destructive notion that somehow in a gun-saturated world we
* * *
You know, we don't have to put up with schoolyard shootings, mind-rotting
television, collapsing ecosystems, cruel health care, shoddy trains. They are
not inevitable. They are just outcomes of often-repeated ideas, widely
broadcast ideas, ideas brought to us by people who profit from them at our
cost. "Privatization is the answer to everything; the only thing worse than
taxes is regulation; we have to solve our problems as competitive individuals
instead of cooperative communities; if the government runs anything, it will
end up running everything."
My friend Amory Lovins likes to say we don't really need to have new ideas. We
just need to stop having old ones.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at