Sunday, March 14, 2010

Misery and Cruelty in the Land 2

A Happy Nation?

Obviously these estimates include massive duplications. Many of the 20 million unemployed are among the 35 million below the poverty level. Many of the malnourished children are also among those listed as growing up with untreated learning disabilities and almost all are among the 35 million poor. Many of the 37 million regular users of mind-control drugs also number among the 25 million who seek psychiatric help.

Some of these deprivations and afflictions are not as serious as others. The 80 million living below the "comfortably adequate" income level may compose too vague and inclusive a category for some observers (who themselves enjoy a greater distance from the poverty line). The 40 million who are without health insurance are not afflicted by an actual catastrophe but face only a potential one (though the absence of health insurance often leads to a lack of care and eventually a serious health crisis). We might not want to consider the 5.5 million arrested as having endured a serious affliction, but what of the 1.5 million who are serving time and what of their victims? We might want to count only the 150,000 who suffer a serious job-related disability rather than the five million on-the-job injuries, only half of the 20 million unemployed and underemployed so as not to duplicate poverty figures, only 10 percent of the 1.1 million institutionalized elderly as mistreated (although the number is probably higher), only 10 per cent of the 37 million regular users of medically prescribed psychogenic drugs as seriously troubled, only 5 per cent of the 160 million living in indebted families as seriously indebted (although the number is probably higher).

If we consider only those who have endured physical or sexual abuse, or have been afflicted with a serious disability, or a serious deprivation such as malnutrition and homelessness, only those who face untimely deaths due to suicide, murder, battering, drug and alcohol abuse, industrial and motor vehicle accidents, medical (mis)treatment, occupational illness, and sexually transmitted diseases, we are still left with a staggering figure of over 19,000,000 victims. To put the matter in some perspective, in the 12 years that saw 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, several million died prematurely within the United States from unnatural and often violent causes.

Official bromides to the contrary, we are faced with a hidden holocaust, a social pathology of staggering dimensions. Furthermore, the above figures do not tell the whole story. In almost every category an unknown number of persons go unreported, for instance, the official tabulation of 35 million living in poverty is based on census data that undercount transients, homeless people, and those living in remote rural and crowded inner-city areas, also, the designated poverty line is set at an unrealistically low income level and takes insufficient account of how inflation especially affects the basics of food, fuel, housing, and health care that consume such a disproportionate chunk of lower incomes. Some economists estimate that actually as many as 46 million live in conditions of acute economic want.

Left uncounted are the more than two thousand yearly deaths in the U.S. military due to training and transportation accidents, and the many murders and suicides in civilian life that are incorrectly judged as deaths from natural causes, along with the premature deaths from cancer caused by radioactive and other carcinogenic materials in the environment. Almost all cancer deaths are now thought to be from human-made causes. Fatality figures do not include the people who are incapacitated and sickened from the one thousand potentially toxic additional chemicals that industry releases into the environment each year, and who die years later but still prematurely. At present there are at least 51,000 industrial toxic dump sites across the country that pose potentially serious health hazards to communities, farmlands, water tables, and livestock. One government study has concluded that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat are now perhaps the leading causes of death in the United States.

None of these figures include the unhappiness, bereavement, and longterm emotional wounds inflicted upon the many millions of loved ones, friends, and family members who are close to the victims.

Public Policy, Personal Pain

If things are so bad, why then has the U.S. mortality rate been declining? The decline over the last half-century has been due largely to the dramatic reduction in infant mortality and the containment of many contagious diseases, largely through improvement in public health standards. Furthermore, years of industrial struggle by working people, especially in the twentieth century, brought a palpable betterment in certain conditions. In other words, as bad as things are now, in earlier times some things were even worse. For example, about 14,000 persons are killed on the job annually, but in 1916 the toll was 35,000, with the labor force less than half what it is today.

The growth in health consciousness that has led millions to quit smoking, exercise more regularly, and have healthier diets also has reduced mortality rates, especially among those over 40. The 55-mile per hour speed limit and the crackdown on drunken driving contributed by cutting into highway fatalities. But the cancer death rate and most of the other pathologies and life diminishing conditions listed earlier continue in an upward direction. Small wonder the climb in life expectancy has leveled off to a barely perceptible crawl in recent years. When compared to other nations, we discover we are not as Number One-ish as we might think. The U.S. infant mortality rate is higher than in thirteen other countries, and in life expectancy, 20-year-old U.S. males rank thirty-sixth among the world's nations, and 20-year-old females are twenty-first. The additional tragedy of these statistics is that most of the casualties are not inevitable products of the human condition, but are due mostly to the social and material conditions created by our profits-before-people corporate system.

Consider a few examples:

First, it may be that industrial production will always carry some kind of risk, but the present rate of attrition can be largely ascribed to inadequate safety standards, speedup, and lax enforcement of safety codes. Better policies can make a difference. In the chemical industry alone, regulations put out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), at a yearly cost to industry of $140 per worker, brought a 23 percent drop in accidents and sickness, averting some 90,000 illnesses and injuries. OSHA's resources are pathetically inadequate. It has only enough inspectors to visit each workplace once every eighty years. Workplace standards to control the tens of thousands of toxic substances are issued at the rate of less than three a year. Even this feeble effort has been more than business could tolerate. Under the Reagan and Bush administrations, OSHA began removing protections, exempting most firms from routine safety inspections, and weakening the cotton dust, cancer, and lead safety standards, and a worker's right to see company medical records.

Second, it may be that in any society some children will sicken and die, but better nutrition and health care make a difference. The Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC) did cut down on starvation and hunger. On the other hand, years after passing a law making some thirteen million children eligible for medical examination and treatment, Congress discovered that almost 85 percent of the youngsters had been left unexamined, causing, in the words of a House subcommittee report, "unnecessary crippling, retardation, or even death of thousands of children."

Third, it may be that medical treatment will always have its hazards, but given the way health care is organized in the United States, money often makes the difference between life and death. Many sick people die simply because they receive insufficient care or are treated too late. Health Insurance premiums have risen astronomically and hospital bills have grown five times faster than the overall cost of living. Yet it is almost universally agreed that people are not receiving better care, only more expensive care, and in some areas the quality of care has deteriorated. Some physicians have cheated Medicaid and Medicare of hundreds of millions of dollars by consistently overcharging for services and tests, fraudulently billing for nonexistent patients or for services not rendered, charging for unneeded treatments, tests, and hospital admissions, and most unforgivable of all, performing unnecessary surgery. Meanwhile, private health insurance companies make profits by raising premiums and withholding care. So people are paying more than ever for health insurance while getting less than ever.

Fourth, it may be that automobile accidents are unavoidable in any society with millions of motor vehicles, but why have we become increasingly dependent on this costly, dangerous, and ecologically disastrous form of transportation? In transporting people, one railroad or subway car can do the work of fifty automobiles. Railroads consume a sixth of the energy used by trucks to transport goods.

These very efficiencies are what make railroads so undesirable to the oil and auto lobbies. For over a half-century, giant corporations like General Motors, Standard Oil of California, and Firestone Tires bought up most of the nation's clean and safe electric streetcar networks, dismantled them, and cut back on all public transportation, thereby forcing people to rely more and more on private cars. The monorail in Japan, a commuter train that travels much faster than any train, has transported some three billion passengers without an injury or fatality. The big oil and auto companies in the U.S. have successfully blocked the construction of monorails here. In ways not yet mentioned corporate and public policies gravely affect private lives. Birth deformities, for instance, are not just a quirk of nature, as the heartbroken parents of Love Canal or the thalidomide children can testify. Many such defects are caused by fast-buck companies that treat our environment like a septic tank. Unsafe products are another cause. There are hundreds of hair dyes, food additives, cosmetics, and medicines marketed for quick profits which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses.

The food industry, seeking to maximize profits, offers ever increasing amounts of highly processed, chemicalized, low-nutrition foods. Bombarded by junk-food advertising over the last thirty years, TV viewers, especially younger ones, have changed their eating habits dramatically. Per capita consumption of vegetables and fruits is down 20 to 25 per cent while consumption of cakes, pastry, soft drinks, and other snacks is up 70 to 80 per cent. According to a U.S. Senate report, the increased consumption of junk foods "may be as damaging to the nation's health as the widespread contagious diseases of the early part of the century." All this may start showing up on the actuarial charts when greater numbers of the younger junk-food generation move into middle age. In 1995-96, a Republican controlled Congress pushed for further cuts in environmental and consumer safety standards and in the regulation of industry, cuts in various public health programs, and cuts in nutritional programs for children and pregnant women. State and local governments are also cutting back on public protection programs and human services in order to pay the enormous sums owed to the banks and to compensate for reductions in federal aid. Thus New York City took such "economy measures" as closing all of its venereal disease clinics and most of its drug rehabilitation and health centers.

We are told that wife-beating, child abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, and other such pathologies know no class boundaries and are found at all income levels. This is true but misleading. The impression left is that these pathologies are randomly distributed across the social spectrum and are purely a matter of individual pathology. Actually, many of them are skewed heavily toward the low-income, the unemployed, and the dispossessed. As economic conditions worsen, so afflictions increase. Behind many of these statistics is the story of class, racial, sexual, and age oppressions that have long been among the legacies of our social order, oppressions that are seldom discussed in any depth by political leaders, news media, or educators. In addition, more and more middle-income people are hurting from the Third Worldization of America, suffering from acute stress, alcoholism, job insecurity, insufficient income, high rents, heavy mortgage payments, high taxes, and crushing educational and medical costs. And almost all of us eat the pesticide-ridden foods, breathe the chemicalized air, and risk drinking the toxic water and being exposed to the contaminating wastes of our increasingly chemicalized, putrefied environment. I say "almost all of us" because the favored few live on country estates, ranches, seashore mansions, and summer hideaways where the air is relatively fresh, and, like President Reagan, they eat only the freshest food and meat derived from organically fed steers that are kept free of chemical hormones, while telling the rest of us not to get hysterical about pesticides and herbicides and chemical additives.

All this explains why many of us find little cause for rejoicing about America the Beautiful. It is not that we don't love our country, but that we do. We love not just an abstraction called "the USA" but the people who live in it, and we believe that the pride of a nation should not be used to hide the social and economic disorder that is its shame. The American dream is becoming a nightmare for many. A concern for collective betterment, for ending the abuses of free-market plunder, is of the utmost importance. "People before profits" is not just a slogan, it is our only hope. -- [based on "Hidden Holocaust, USA" from "Dirty Truths" by Michael Parenti, 1996]

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