Tuesday, November 09, 2010

To the Honorable John Boehner:

First of all, congratulations on being re-elected to another term as the Congressional Representative of the 8th Congressional District of the State of Ohio. Given that your party will once again have a majority in the House of Representatives, it is very likely that you will become the Speaker of the House of the 112th Congress. Given the importance of that office, I am delighted to hear you repeat your promise to listen to the American people and to take the beliefs of the American people into consideration as you guide legislation through the House.

Listening to the American people, as you are fully aware, is a complex process, because there as so many views and convictions among the American people, and on many issues the views of some Americans seem to be incompatible with the views of other Americans. Honoring the views of all Americans therefore requires seeking an underlying agreement that reconciles the apparent differences of opinion that exist on the surface.

One issue on which Americans of all political persuasions seem to be in fundamental agreement is that measures must be taken to reduce the national debt, which requires bringing expenditures down to a level where they are no more than income. Otherwise, the effects of the deficit will have to be borne by future generations. All Americans seem to be in agreement that there is something unjust in having future generations pay the consequences of the careless and reckless behavior of the generations now living on the earth. Therefore, some combination must be found of increasing the income of governments and decreasing governmental expenditures.

If one examines the areas of greatest governmental spending, it is evident that the largest single drain on the American treasury is the military budget. If one takes the basic allocation of monies dedicated to maintaining military bases in the United States and abroad—the US has military bases in more than 130 countries—and adds the infusion of funds, all of them borrowed from our children and grandchildren, needed to meet the expensive military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and occasional operations in Pakistan and Yemen, and then adds to that the amount of money needed to service the debt generated by those operations, and add to that the expense of taking care of the men and women who are physically or psychologically damaged by those operations, it turns out that a little over 40% of the dollars that Americans pay in taxes goes to the military.

It is not obvious that all these military operations are serving the interests of the American people, nor do they seem to be serving the needs of the people in the countries in which these operations are taking place. At the very best, we can say that the results are mixed and that a good deal of damage is attending any good that is being achieved. So one area where enormous savings could be made would be eliminating the maintenance of an unnecessarily large military presence around the world.

Some of the money now being wasted on the development of weapons and on military operations could be used more effectively to secure the safety of the American public by creating an atmosphere of good will towards Americans through service projects that reduce poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, environmental degradation and economic disparity and injustice. The good will of thousands of American helping hands can be destroyed by a single drone missile attack that kills innocent civilians. Creating good will through benevolent service projects would cost only a small fraction of what it costs to mount military operations. Most of the money now being spent on the military could be saved and used to pay down the deficit. Surprisingly, that was not a campaign issue in the recent elections, but that is no reason to continue ignoring it as a major factor in the economic ruin this country is now facing, thanks to the lack of vision of the past five—no, ten—Presidents.

The economic malaise of our country is not restricted to the government and its policies. Individual families are also carrying burdens of debt that weaken our collective economic well-being. Often families face financial disaster because it is impossible for them to meet the expenses of providing housing for their children, nutritious food for their families, education for their offspring and medical care for members of the family who fall ill, sustain injuries or enter into the infirmities of old age.

As you have often observed, the cost of health care is climbing steadily. This is true everywhere in the world, partly because our expectations of having highly complex and technologically sophisticated treatments available is much higher than it was in the time of our grandparents. In most industrialized countries, people are living longer than people lived in previous generations. It would be nice if longevity were sustainable.

Let me share something of my own personal experience as an American. I have lived for years in two countries other than the United States, and in both of those countries (Japan and Canada) the quality of health care was at least as high as what we have available in the United States, in some areas much better than what we have in this country. And the costs in those countries are much lower. In Canada, for example, I underwent a medical procedure that was necessary to treat a condition that was undermining my overall health. The procedure was paid for entirely by the health plan of the province of Qu├ębec—as I'm sure you know, there is no Canadian health care plan, but each province in Canada has a health care plan, and in no province are the premiums for insurance policies more than a fraction of what it costs to carry insurance here in the United States. (I know that, because I have lived in five Canadian provinces as well as in five of the United States). Costs are kept low in Canada, because the insurance plans and the billing procedures are simple, and because limits are placed on the amount of profit a doctor, a hospital or a pharmaceutical company can make. One pharmaceutical product that I have been prescribed to take costs about one-third as much in Canada as it costs in the United States. The surgical procedure that I underwent cost the provincial health plan about $1500, and it cost me nothing above the basic cost of my insurance premiums. I recently had a less complex procedure in the United States that cost me several hundreds of dollars in co-payments and that cost my insurance plans over $10,000. The exact same procedure that cost $1500 in Canada would cost, I am told, between $15,000 and $20,000 in the United States. Because the procedure was necessary but not an emergency, I had to wait about one month for an operation room in Canada; in the United States I waited for about six months for a less complicated procedure.

I have heard you say several times that America has the best health-care system in the world. In my own experience, the health care available here is both of lesser quality and much less affordable than equivalent health care in Canada. The United States has much to learn about health care from Canada, Japan, Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries. It does not have much to learn from ideologues in this country. It is time for the United States to cultivate and manifest the most important of all the Christian virtues: humility.

I am in complete agreement with those who say the health care reform put into place by the 111th Congress fails to address some of the most serious obstacles to America's having affordable insurance for every man, woman and child in the country. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and individual physicians all tend to do everything they can to maximize profits in this country. Health care is a business in this country, not a service; it is a privilege, not a right. As a result, very few of us are free. We are slaves to debt and to fear of losing what we have striven to acquire and to keep and to pass on to our children. The health care reform bill passed this past year did nothing at all to change that culture of profitability that undermines the physical health of Americans and leads too many families into economic disaster that results in their having little or no money to leave to their offspring and, worse, results frequently in bankruptcy. The price too many families pay for fleeting health is permanent financial ruin. In no other industrialized country is that true.

Americans, no matter what their political allegiances, do not want to face financial ruin because of medical costs, insurance costs, pharmaceutical costs, the costs of servicing debts, and the costs of financial fees associated with mortgages. Americans want solutions to their problems. They do not want political dogmatism and doctrinaire rigidity that stands in the way of co-operation in state capitals and in the District of Columbia. We all win when there is co-operation and compromise. We all lose when there is political stalemate.

The recent elections show that the American people are angry right now, and the anger is growing to levels that could become dangerous to us all. But as one of America's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, wisely observed, “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame,” and “Anger is never without a reason but seldom with a good one.” Good policy cannot arise from antipathy and stubbornness. Recall the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca: “To err is human; to persist is diabolical.” The Roman Empire did not listen to his advice. It fell.

Everyone seems to have a different account of what the American people want. As far as I can tell from listening to my friends and neighbors, Americans do not want to see two more years of diabolical stubbornness and stiff-necked refusal to compromise and to listen to the ideas of those who think differently from someone's party line and to leave the slogans behind and to seek workable policies. We are hurting out here, and we appeal to you, the people we have elected to represent our needs and concerns, to work with one another to find policies that will relieve our pain. I know you will do your best; I saw the tears in your eyes as you spoke on election night about your personal pursuit of the American dream.

The task before you is in some ways dauntingly difficult, for our country is broken in so many ways. And yet the task before you is beautifully simple. All you need to do is to keep your promise to listen. Carefully. To everyone.

I wish you and your colleagues in the House of Representatives and in the Senate every success as you go forward and lead our nation forward into better times.

Respectfully yours,

Richard Hayes
Albuquerque, New Mexico