It always amuses me when a random denizen from the Internet shows up to explain to me what I really meant.
On March 12th I posted the following comment to Twitter:
Calling universal healthcare and public education free stuff is the same as calling a Navy aircraft carrier a free ship.
That’s what I said.
Twenty Words. 106 Characters.
A fairly typical Tweet for me.
On the surface, a soundbite, a throwaway line.
Underneath, however …well, we’ll get to that.
And two weeks later it’s been viewed by more than 333,000 people, responded to more than 10,000 times, retweeted 2,300 times, and garnered more than 3,000 “likes.” (Those numbers do not include the interactions where people clipped my words and attributed them to Bernie Sanders – Dread Cthulhu only knows what the stats are on that).
It’s not the most popular thing I’ve ever said on Twitter, but it’s up there and it’s still going around even as I write this.
Well, it’s funny you should ask.
As I noted on Facebook, the comment was originally prompted by a brief online exchange, to wit:
During the course of a conversation regarding use of public monies with regard to military spending vs public welfare (welfare, in this case, being the public good, not the federal program for assistance to poor people), a commenter on social media, after a string of insults and non sequiturs, ended his message to me with “Liberals just want FREE STUFF!”
Evidence would suggest that everybody, liberals and conservatives, likes “free stuff” – just so long as somebody else is paying for it. However, in the conversation at hand, nowhere did I or anybody else suggest or even attempt to imply that public education or public healthcare programs were “free.”
In fact, it was just the opposite.
Those programs, public education, public healthcare, are costly.
However, In the US, money spent in both areas combined is but a fraction of that spent on the military, particularly when you examine how and why citizens are taxed and how the resulting local, state and federal monies are allocated to various portions of the various budgets.
The point being that if you call public health and public education “free,” then you must also consider national defense “free.”
It also means you’ve redefined the word “free.”
This didn’t go over well with the original commenter, a self-declared libertarian who really, really loved the idea of publicly funded warships and really, really hated the idea of publicly funded education and healthcare. He yelled something about the Constitution, then stormed out of the conversation and blocked me from any further interaction.
Writers are not ones to waste good words or interesting ideas. And for political writers, well, It’s all grist for the mill. If we could figure out how to deduct social media conversations on our taxes, we would and to hell with the aircraft carriers.
So I boiled the conversation down to twenty words, 106 characters, Calling universal healthcare and public education free stuff is the same as calling a Navy aircraft carrier a free ship and posted it to Twitter.
Because that’s what I do.
What came back in this case, and continues to come back two weeks later, is endlessly fascinating.
Noted writer and futurist Karl Schroeder responded that while universal healthcare and education are certainly not free, ultimately such programs cost far less than the cost of not having them.
This is true.
Probably so. As many times as you’d care to run the experiment.
And it is, in point of fact, why we have such programs in the first place – because there was a time when we did not. Because epidemics kill rich and poor, taxpayer and freeloader, alike.
So do revolutions of impoverished torch-wielding proletarians.
So do wars, and blight, and poverty, and ignorance.
Over time, against the scope of history, a healthy educated population benefits the nation as much, or more, than the aircraft carrier.
But not everybody saw it that way.
These two comments are the antipodes of citizenship.
This is the difference between those who regard civilization as a social construct which is only as good as the weakest link and those who see it as every man for himself.
The point of my statement was this:
Here in America, when someone suggests perhaps education and healthcare should be the birthright of all Americans and not just those who can afford it – or at the very least accessible to all with a little work – and that the resulting healthy, educated population would benefit us all, certain conservatives inevitably respond with YOU JUST WANT FREE STUFF!
However, when someone suggests taxpayer dollars should be used to buy trillion-dollar stealth fighters, or tanks, or nuclear missiles, or another aircraft carrier, conservatives don’t shout,“YOU JUST WANT FREE SHIPS!”
And that, that right there, is the very crux of what divides us today.
That is the difference between “Ask not what your country can do for you…” and “what’s in it for me?”
For example, take this conversation from yesterday:
Ebadirad considers public roads and Navy aircraft carriers as a “fee for service.”
And by extension health care and education are apparently not.
I suggested that he might have misunderstood my comment:
No, he really doesn’t know why I said what I did.
He was confident he knew what I meant, even after I told him he was wrong.
Ebadirad, who calls himself a “Developer with a serious passion for trail blazing in the startup tech world” and says “If it can be imagined, I can design and build it” apparently can’t stretch his serious trailblazing imagination to encompass the idea that there might be more to my comment.
And he didn’t bother to check.
From my own experience in the field of cutting-edge technology and my extensive experience with technology “developers,” I find this hilariously familiar.
A digression: A number of years ago when I was still on active duty with the US military I was at a defense contractor reviewing a system they were developing for use on Navy ships. The project leader, whose military experience existed solely inside of an XBox, spent a week demonstrating a “tactical, quick-response” weapon that required two operators, an hour of sensor sampling followed by 30-60 minutes of alignment and tuning, had to be programmed for each target by complex differential equations performed by an 18-year old Navy tech – in his head, on the fly, where a mistake could kill our own people – and nobody else on the ship could do anything during the setup phase (including changing course or speed, operating radar or communications equipment, firing other weapons, and so on).
You have no idea how I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
When I could speak, I had to explain to a room full of disbelieving developers who simply could not fathom (yes, I did that on purpose) that a warship in a hostile environment might have to change course or communicate or use its radar or fire its guns or do all of those things simultaneously at high speed plus thousands of other operations. While I appreciated the engineering and the capability inherent in their system, while I might admire what it could do if its use was the only consideration, in reality, practically, all we really needed was a single large heavy-duty red knob with two settings: “Off” and “Full Power.” Because if I ever had to use this thing, well then circumstances were dire indeed and I would never ever use any setting other than full power. Off. Or Vaporize. And Screw the math.
Because that is the difference between a lab and a battlefield.
Because that is the pragmatic nature of war.
And because in war, weapons, like people, are part of a greater whole which must be able to work together for the benefit of all.
(The contractor came back several months later with a redesigned system which was twice as complex and took twice as long to set up. They didn’t get the contract)
A wise man, like a wise developer, would have looked for context before attempting an argument.
Well, if you go look you’ll see I never said exactly that – though if pressed I would agree that it’s entirely possible his health care and education might indeed directly benefit me depending on circumstance. Certainly his education and healthcare, and by extension, that of all Americans indirectly benefits me – though I suppose I’m just arguing semantics here.
He says that he has to pay for both his healthcare and his education, but his tax dollars cover aircraft carriers.
He calls this a “fee for service.”
You see it, don’t you?
First, our tax dollars don’t cover the aircraft carriers.
If they did we wouldn’t be looking at a $19,000,000,000,000 debt, would we? (for the literalists, “aircraft carriers” in this context is a metaphor for the US Federal military budget, as it was in the original Tweet).
Second, I’m a self-employed writer with a kid in college, tell me about paying for education and healthcare. Go on. Make me laugh.
Third, the truth of the matter is that you’d be paying a hell of a lot more for both education and healthcare if the government wasn’t involved. That was the whole point of the Affordable Healthcare Act. That’s the whole point of tax credits for education. And so on.
I do feel public health and education of the population at large both, directly and indirectly, benefits me.
Benefits me and you and society as a whole.
For example, federal vaccination programs paid for by my tax dollars directly benefit me. I get to live in a society where the diseases which killed literally billions of people down through history are practically nonexistent. And I benefit whether the various recipients of those vaccines paid any taxes or not.
Look around. How many of your kids are currently in an iron lung from polio? How many of your relatives died from smallpox this year? How’s that typhus outbreak going? What? There hasn’t been a typhus outbreak in your neighborhood in living memory? How beneficial. And unless you’re just being a facetious ass, it should be no great effort to extend the example of vaccinations to all healthcare in general. And to education, as well – uneducated ignorant people fear doctors and vaccinations, don’t they?
Another example, it benefits me to pay taxes which support the fire department – even if my neighbor doesn’t.
It directly benefits me if that protection extends to my freeloading neighbor. Why? Well, because if his house burns down, mine might too if the fire department doesn’t show up and put out the flames on his property. Maybe the whole damned city burns down.
Ultimately, of course, it depends on how you define “benefit.”
“Wealth transfer.” That’s what a libertarian calls taxes.
“You’re [categorizing] a wealth transfer as a fee-for-service provided by the gov[ernment].”
You may at this point, if you like, picture me shouting at a room full of engineers, “Big. Red. Knob. Big red knob! Off! On! BIG RED KNOB!”
But, I digress.
In this case, like most libertarians, Mr. Ebadirad labels an aircraft carrier a legitimate “service” and education and healthcare as not.
Because he can point to an aircraft carrier and say that it benefits us all – even if some of us don’t want another damned aircraft carrier.
And because he can’t (he thinks) point to a person’s healthcare or education – which he sees as only benefitting the recipient.
As such, he considers the aircraft carrier a legitimate use of public money
Healthcare and education he considers theft.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the very same people who believe if the rich are given more wealth at taxpayer expense the resulting largess will somehow benefit us all, but at the same time those very same people do not believe their vaunted sacred principle of Trickle Down Economics applies to healthcare and education.
Maybe it’s just me.
Ultimately, I suspect, this is less about the constitutional limitations of government and more about a self-imposed limitation of imagination.
Look here, as an American, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion.
If you believe aircraft carriers are a public service but education and healthcare are not, well, you’re wrong but the guys manning that aircraft carrier are out there with their government health care and education defending your right to be a selfish ass anyway.
In reality, America doesn’t work that way.
Right or wrong, good or bad, aircraft carriers, healthcare (to varying degrees), and education (again to varying degrees) are all benefits of civilization and, therefore, funded, regulated, and overseen by the government because most of us understand that the alternative is far worse – and far more expensive.
“Someone’s education is not gov[ernment] owned.”
And perhaps not.
Someone’s education might not be “government owned,” but it’s entirely likely they got that education in a government owned facility – unless they went to a private school, and even then it’s very likely the government provided funding, certification, standards, access, grants, leases, land, materials, tax credits, and etc. Not to mention paid for much of the larger science, engineering, technology that education references and not to mention those aircraft carriers out there ensuring you have a safe environment to go to school in.
Note, again for the literalists, in this context, “aircraft carrier” is a metaphor that includes but is not limited to military forces, police, security, legal structures and courts, infrastructure, standards, transportation, safety systems, communications, knowledge, and social systems which ensure the functioning of our society and therefore access to education and ultimately give you a place to exercise that knowledge once your education is complete.
If you went to a government owned and operated military school like I did, or your education was paid for and directed by a government military program such as ROTC and OCS, well, then the government does own your education – at least until you’ve completed your service obligation and paid back the taxpayer.
More to the point, while the aircraft carrier might be a tangible government owned asset, the larger “service” it provides as part of our national defense isn’t.
National Defense is as nebulous and as intangible as national education.
We tend to only notice it when it isn’t adequate.
Saying the government doesn’t own your education while technically and grammatically correct, is incredibly shortsighted and ignorant of a much larger context.
Education doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
And neither does health care or national defense.
Ultimately, warships and bombers are only as good as those who build and wield them.
Throughout history, the societies we admire, the ones we seek to emulate, the ones our founders modeled the United States on, those societies advance by education, by science and technology, by increased standards of living, by increased public health, by innovation, and most especially through a sense of shared purpose and shared destiny.
The societies we despise advance by the sword.
Those who believe their civic duty extends only to warships and not to education and healthcare are fools.
Taxes are the price you pay for the service of civilization.
And it’s damned cheap, given the alternative.
Originally published on Jim Wright’s most excellent blog, Stonekettle Station. Reprinted with permission. All copyrights are Jim’s. Only changes made were for typographical errors.
Featured image via onvia.com