Monday, February 09, 2009

Saved by Dental Hygiene

Robin is plunging to his death from the top of a building. At the penultimate moment Batman throws him a bat shaped boomerang with a rope attached. Robin catches it in his teeth and uses it to pull himself to safety. Robin (excitedly) "Thank Goodness I take good care of my teeth!" Batman (solemnly) "You owe your life, to Dental Hygiene. If only more people understood."

Sure, it was all campy fun in the sixties but as it turns out it makes damned good sense for us, as a country, right now. Dental health is a gateway to all kinds of health. A few years ago it was demonstrated that pregnant women with poor dental care--as in homeless or unemployed women--were much more likely to miscarry. The Times ran an article which I can't find a link to about just how poor dental care hampers work success: people with ugly or missing teeth simply can't be hired for "front of the house" jobs and are relegated to social obloquy and low wages. Children with poor dental care or no dental care routinely go to school with the kind of abscesses and jaw pain that floor older workers. They can neither eat a healthy diet nor study appropriately. In fact last year a child died of poor dental care when an untreated abscess lead to a very costly infection of the brain. Yet Dental care for children and adults is a luxury that few can afford. The quickest and most useful "jobs program/stimulus" in the world would be to sign up every school aged child for a federally paid tooth exam and cleaning at their local school.

A correspondent raised with me the question of whether a country whose economy was founded on people buying more and more trash could ever recover its equilibrium once people grasp that an infinite supply of plastic objects is not really within their economic grasp. Its something that has been on my mind, too, ever since I realized that although I could afford a new set of holiday themed tableware from Crate and Barrell I couldn't *store* a new holiday themed tableware set from Crate and Barrell. So, if I wasn't updating my housewares every season who was? And for how long? Answer: increasingly, nobody.

But there are one or two areas of life in which increased spending is never wasted, is always necessary, and has unlimited payoffs in intangibles like "human welfare" and that is health care spending. One way to arrive at that conclusion is to simply turn Republican arguments on their heads. Its my preferred way of studying society and politics at this point, because its infallible. Take their argument, reverse it, and you have a good approximation of a better argument and policy. One of the main Republican arguments against national health care is that people's health care wants are bottomless. If people could get access to good healthcare, man, they'd be all the time demanding stuff like stronger teeth, braces, good glasses, prosthesis, cancer treatments and even NICU units and prenatal care. The uxurious luxurious bastards. Likening ordinary health care costs and needs to cosmetic surgery, just as they liken ordinary contraceptive needs to some kind of bar hopping party game (I tried linking to Mark Steyn's priceless column on how the Contraceptive portion of the Stimulus bill was a luxury gift to drunken sluts but when you enter "Mark Steyn" and "Contraception" into a google search you discover the limits of google when it comes to handling a cottage industry of wingnuttitude), consensual sex to rape, and frat pranks to torture, the Republican version of reality inverts what we know to be true: Health Care is a smart investment for individuals, families, and for society.

The wealth of a country is its people, not its roads or houses. No people, or no healthy people, and all of that other wealth, all of those things, go to waste. Sure, its a gaping maw of need and to a certain extent the more we pay out for, say, children's health the more we are spending. But that doesn't make it any different from other kinds of consumer needs and wants, does it? I don't see the Republicans coming out against repeat trips to Disney because those trips aren't "needed" or are "costly." In fact, as I recall, Former President W asked us to continue shopping and going to Disney after 9/11 because he thought maintaining a steady stream of rodent bedazzled four year olds was important to our economic and political health.

This is, in very short order, precisely the debate we are going to have about National Health Care. On the left we see an infinite number of reasons to create and maintain an extensive, well funded, system of taxpayer financed health care. 1) It would relieve businesses of the cost and paperwork associated with insurance companies, 2) it would relieve individuals and families of the anxiety and risk associated with lost health care benefits when employment is suspended or terminated, 3) it would remove the profit motive and insurance company cost cutting from the medical equation, 4) it would produce a healthier population overall and enable more people to continue working while they or their loved ones are ill, 5) it would enable entrepreneurs of all sizes to take risks in creating new companies or trying new jobs, 6) it would create a burst of good jobs in the health care industry where "good job" is a job that requires good education, high skills and doesn't consist of simply pushing paper and denying benefits. On the Right, of course, all of this is inverted and the increased need for health care professionals and health care provision is seen as a sign of weakness and dependency in a welfare type population of slackers, health care jobs that provide health care are seen as unnecessary while insurance company jobs that deny health care are seen as good.

We are having a hugely ugly and pointless debate about the Jobs program in which the Democrats have failed to make the case that the stimulus bill is a Jobs program and the Jobs program redounds to the benefit of every American now and in the future. We are about to have the exact same debate about health care if we don't seize the initiative and the upper hand semantically and demonstrate again and again that "infrastructure" means human bones and hearts, health care spending is a jobs program with benefits for all of us.