Posted Wednesday, March 8, 2017.
Portrait of the Blogger as a Less Than Happy Young Man: That’s me in the glasses on the right,looking soulful while eating a cookie at a reception after Uncle Merlin’s graduation from Boston University a hundred years ago. That’s Uncle Merlin with his back to the camera on the left. His grandmother and mother are sitting at the table between us. A nice day and I had a good time even though I was generally miserable those days. But at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that if I’d choked on that cookie I could have gone to the hospital without worry because I had my own health insurance. And I wasn’t even mandated to.
When I was twenty I dropped out of college.
The college I was no longer attending disagreed on the technicalities. According to them, I flunked out. And I guess technically I had. But I didn’t see it that way. In the middle of the semester my sophomore year I stopped doing the work and stopped going to class. I heard from friends this perplexed several of my professors who thought I was a good student and on my way to earning A’s in their classes. But I’d just been going through the motions for a while and then simply couldn’t see the point of it anymore. Nothing was interesting. Nothing was fun. Nothing seemed worth the time or the trouble. I spent most of my time reading the library. I had no intention of coming back anyway so I just quit. I just didn’t go through the formalities. That was the beginning of the most miserable two years of my life.
I was probably depressed but it didn’t occur to me and I’d have denied it anyway. I knew from depression. My grandmother suffered from it terribly. I thought all depressed people suffered the way she did, unable to bring themselves to do anything except sit in a chair and stare into space or weep silently for hours on end. I could do things. I did things. I did lots of things. I did them mostly without enthusiasm or enjoyment but I did them. And I had a plan. I blamed my unhappiness on having gone to the wrong school and I made up my mind to get into the right one. Boston University. So I got a job. Two jobs, actually, one to pay for my upkeep, the other to pay for classes at Albany Stare where I went part-time to repair my GPA and make myself presentable as a potential transfer student. This didn’t leave me a lot of money to play with. But I didn’t mind. I was unhappy but I was busy and I was doing something I hadn’t done in my life so far---paying my own way. I felt independent, responsible, and like I was getting somewhere. Back on track, at any rate.
Part of paying for my upkeep was paying for my own health insurance. I don’t remember if this was my idea. Probably not. Probably Pop suggested it because I was no longer automatically on his insurance. There was no requirement that insurance companies cover children over eighteen. He was allowed to keep his kids on his policy while they were in college. I think it’s likely I had two options. Pay Pop whatever extra his insurance company charged him to keep me on his policy or buy my own. That there was a third option, going without health insurance, either didn’t occur to me or struck me as out of the question. I was twenty and felt invincible but I knew I wasn’t and I wanted to be able to see a doctor or go to the hospital whenever life inevitably and routinely proved my lack of invincibility.
I can’t tell you the details of the policy. My bet would be I never really knew them. Probably I let Pop pick it out for me. He wouldn’t have let me buy a shitty policy but almost certainly it provided only the most basic coverage and I’d have been in trouble if something really serious happened to me. It was from Blue Cross Blue Shield, I remember that, and I remember being pleased about that. I thought Blue Cross was the best insurance company going, the way I thought Ford made the best pickup trucks and Hyatt ran the best hotels. I was a sucker for their advertising. But I can still picture the paper ID card and remember the little surge of pride every time I opened my wallet and saw it in there. The sight of it assured me I was a responsible and independent grown-up now. For the life of me, though, I can’t remember if I ever had to take it out to use it. Seems likely I’d remember if I had, considering how many buttons I’d have busted when handing it over to the receptionist at the doctor’s office and how disappointed I’d have been when it didn’t earn me the pat on the head I’d have expected---”You’re carrying your own health insurance? My, aren’t you a responsible young man! So unlike other young men your age. Are you dating anyone? Would you like to meet my daughter?”
At any rate, I carried that card for two years. When I got into BU I went back on Pop’s insurance, stayed on it through grad school (His must have been a generous insurance company or, more likely, his employer, the State University of New York, was a tough negotiator on behalf of its professors.) When I left Iowa I bought my own insurance again for the year I was out of school and living off a fellowship. Then I want to work teaching and I’ve been covered ever since.
Now, obviously, this little stroll down Memory Lane was inspired by the Republicans’ finally releasing what they call their health care plan---since it doesn’t include the costs or mention how many people are going to be stripped of their insurance, it’s not so much a plan as an advertisement for one. The first teaser trailer, so to speak. But what does it really have to do with what’s going on now? Virtually nothing.
This is just a fragment of my autobiography. A story---practically just an extended anecdote---about me and only me. And it happened a long time ago. The world has changed. Health care has changed. The only lessons I’m comfortable drawing from it are ones about who I was way back when from which I can infer some things about who I am now and how I got this way. Basically, all it is is background that explains why I’m unsympathetic to young single people who are mad that they are required to buy health insurance or pay a penalty on the grounds that they’re young and invincible and it’s unfair to make them buy a product they don’t need or want.
First, I want to say to them, you aren’t invincible, and sooner or later life’s going to prove that to you, and, second, when it inevitably does, when you walk out in front of a bus or fall off a cliff or discover that young people can get cancer, who’s going to pay for it after the hospital and the doctors have taken every penny you have and sent you back to live in your parents’ basement? We are! The rest of the costs are going to be passed along to us directly and indirectly.
This isn’t just me being a grumpy old man. I’d have made the same argument back when I was twenty, although back then it would have been as much a boast about my own good sense and personal responsibility. (I’d have counted on nobody pointing out that if really had any sense and was a responsible a young adult I’d have still been in school and on my father’s insurance and not have had this particular reason for boasting.) But my point would have stood and still stands: Nobody is ever perfectly free of responsibility to others and no personal choice is completely personal. We’re social beings, we can’t survive outside society, and that makes us intimately involved in each other’s lives. Whatever I do affects you. Whatever you do affects me. Things are not simply ok to do because we might think it’s not anyone’s business but our own.
“Who am I hurting?”
“You want a list? How much time have you got?”
But there are too many things I don’t know that I need to know before judging. I don’t know how much my insurance cost. I don’t know what it covered. I don’t know if my policy was the nearly worthless type that would have been cancelled right away under the provisions of the ACA and if I could have afforded the equivalent of the better policies now required because I don’t know how much money I made with my two jobs. I don’t know off the top of my head what the cheapest policy for a young single person costs today. I don’t know how much money the young people complaining make. I do know that the ones who are complaining are either over 26 or their parents for one reason or another don’t have insurance themselves. It would be nice to think that everyone over the age of twenty-six has a job with benefits that include health insurance or is making enough money they can afford to buy a decent policy for themselves. But that’s simply not true. That’s why we need an affordable health insurance program. It’s why we need national health insurance. It’s why we need national health care!
If I’m going to lecture young people on what they should do based on what I did when I was their age then I should know what it really was that I did when I was their age. Memory is not a good basis for judgments of any kind. Not only do we forget more than we remember, we misremember more than we remember accurately, and often that’s because we need to misremember. We select memories that serve our interests at the moment, the main interest of the moment being our vanity. We actively edit memories even in the process of remembering. “When I was your age…” is usually the opening salvo of a lie.
And it’s not only the case with old memories. We do it with memories from yesterday, this morning, an hour ago. We misremember in the process of forming a memory. The fact is that most of what we think we know about ourselves and the way the world works is based on fictions we’ve invented as we go or made up afterwards to make sense of what’s happening in a way that comforts us. Basically, we don’t understand our own lives any better than we understand other people’s lives because we don’t do a good---or honest---job of self-observation and analysis.
A lot of what I don’t know is knowable, even information from four decades ago. It’s possible that at the bottom of some box in Mom and Pop Mannion’s attic I could find my copy of my actual policy or the check stubs from my monthly payments. My tax returns from those two years might be up there too. Someone at Blue Cross could probably tell me that the likeliest policy a twenty year old single male would have bought at the time and how much that cost and what it covered. It’s even possible that somewhere in their archives is their copy of my policy. I could look it all up...if I had the time and the staff and the inclination and the reason. But I have none of those because…
I’m not a United States Congressman. It’s not my job to know any of this stuff. I’m not making policy and enacting laws that affect the lives of millions of people. It’s one thing, then, for an old coot like me to complain about kids today based on how I think the world used to be. It’s another thing for the likes of Jason Chaffetz to tell people who can’t afford health insurance that they could if only they’d give up their iPhones.
End of Chapter One. Follow the link to Chapter Two: Problem is we don't know what we think we know.