Jump, dance like the Brits for government health care

Before the swimmers leaped into the pool and the gymnasts flipped on their balance beams, the world was treated to the Olympics’ opening ceremony.

At one point, director Danny Boyle heralded the Great Britain’s National Health Service in a segment that included “more than 600 real NHS staff and patients.”

As described by the London-based Sunday Times: “Happy pyjama-clad patients – played by children – leaped up and down on 320 giant hospital beds, which doubled as trampolines, while nurses danced around them. Dressed in 1950s uniforms, the nurses used luminous hospital beds to spell out the words ‘NHS’ and ‘GOSH’, standing for Great Ormond Street Hospital.”

While we may be tempted to think of this as another case of British quirkiness, it reflects pride in this system of government-run hospitals and clinics, secured by political parties across the spectrum. Few use private medicine. But this model is not for every country.

Across the Atlantic, Americans have a love-hate relationship – or at least a like-dislike one – with government.

In opinion studies going back decades, majorities of Americans support a slew of specific programs, while indicating coolness for “government spending.” And, when it comes to particular regulations, like those for clean air or water, or for safe working conditions, Americans really like them. But ask them about “regulations,” and their support turns to distaste. This same pattern holds for taxes. Strong majorities of Americans think wealthy people should pay higher tax rates than those in the middle-class and working class. Yet when queried regarding raising “taxes,” people give more mixed responses.

In our time, two universal programs, Medicare and Social Security, are enormously popular. But when they were created, scary rhetoric like that being used about Obamacare was common. Support rose later.

Experience made the difference. Before Social Security, the elderly were among the poorest Americans. Afterward, old people had the lowest poverty rates.

Now it’s clear how Medicare and Medicaid matter. In the 47 years since Lyndon Johnson signed them into law, both have proven themselves again and again.

When politicians try to undermine popular, effective programs, they usually fail. President George W. Bush boasted that he had won “political capital” by being re-elected and tried to use it on privatizing Social Security. Bush’s effort crashed and burned.

Now congressman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has proposed a budget plan, endorsed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, that would raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. It changes the program people like into one based on vouchers that will be worth less as time goes on. For Maine, with our many elderly people, this would create significant hardship.

Meanwhile, the Ryan plan significantly cuts taxes on the most wealthy and would vastly decrease student grants, environmental protection, small business loans and nearly every part of government. It wouldn’t balance the budget until 2040 at best. If passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a President Romney next year, it would reset public priorities and remake America.

But, while wary about government’s reach and financing, Americans are pragmatic.

Within Maine, Medicaid matters for health. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared Maine and two other states, all of which had increased the number of adults eligible for Medicaid, with neighboring states and found fewer deaths and less illness.

Maine government can further communities’ creativity and energy and use public funds to partner with businesses and nonprofits. As Professor Emily Shaw explained about one bond Gov. Paul LePage refused to issue, “those towns found private investors, received the backing of their residents and dedicated themselves to a much larger revitalization project than what the state funded alone. This bond represented seed money, which galvanized increased commitments to some places that could really use it.”

Given Americans’ like-dislike relationship with government, the United States has policies suited to our ambivalence that have earned and maintain our support. Politicians wanting to dismantle well-liked policies find that an abstract discomfort with “government” doesn’t go far.

And while we’ll probably never mount theatrical productions to celebrate public-private partnerships and progress in public health, our strong support of these is worth at least a symbolic tip of our hats or bounce on a trampoline.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.