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Gary Horton: The health care line has been crossed

Posted: July 7, 2009 4:05 p.m.
Updated: July 8, 2009 4:30 a.m.
Most agree the role of good government is to provide citizens the important goods and services that private industry either can’t, won’t or is too inefficient to provide.

And most agree that when government reaches beyond this standard, it becomes intrusive, interfering in private life and with the private sector.

But when government falls short of the standard, we see that people suffer as they are compelled to cope with private sector services that are inferior or price manipulated.

Both private and public sectors play important roles in our modern society.

The fulcrum of the ongoing tussle on The Signal’s opinion pages is, “Where do you draw the line between private and public?”

Our fight isn’t whether there should be active government, but rather where it should be active and where should it leave us alone.

Opinions get dicey when we leverage our socioeconomic biases.

Santa Clarita runs toward middle-class sensibilities, and here in town we mostly feel united in our “common sense.”

But throw in views of the poor and the preferences of the elite and “common sense” about government’s role sheds commonality quickly.

For example, most SCV-ers agree road and highway construction and maintenance rightly exists under a government umbrella.

We abhor toll roads for our daily commutes, yet beg for highway expansion to speed our trips.

We expect City Hall to clean and maintain our roads lest they turn to weed lots — and we couldn’t afford to sweep and repave them at our own expense if we had to.

When SCV residents think transportation, we generally think more government-paid roads. And to us — it makes “common sense.”

But the poor have less use for roads than other locals. Instead, the poor want buses and trains. Public transportation saves them hundreds of precious dollars each month.

The super-rich, by contrast, might hardly care for roads or buses.

When they get up and go, it’s air traffic control they’re thinking of. What these folks want is what keeps their jets and helicopters flying safe and fast over our traffic-jammed heads.

Yet while we, from elite to poor, may fragment views along economic lines, we still find unity in government protection from abusive private monopoly.

We understand the extortionist monopoly of popcorn in movie theatres; we don’t need the same abusive treatment for our roads, buses, traffic control or other important needs.

We all want government to enforce fair play in our systems.

Business prices goods at “whatever the market will bear.” And the greater the need or stronger their monopoly, the greater the price.

That’s the hitch of hitching private business in critical public-need sectors.

Not long ago, Americans were sold the virtues of energy deregulation.

“Competition” would lower costs.

Instead, industry giants — like Enron — gamed us and economically raped California.

We paid triple for electricity while the state eventually unwound that mess.

Government, it turns out, provides needed public protection in critical markets where the private sector might otherwise abuse and exploit.

Of course, government never would have produced an iPod or a Blackberry — private industry did.

What government did was enforce the open, competitive markets where private innovation prevailed.

Thanks to government protecting wide-open technological markets, we today enjoy incredibly improved technology costing fractions of just a few years ago.

Strange then, with similar advances in medical technology, U.S. health care costs continue to rise like energy did under deregulation.

Medical coverage and treatment cost much more here than in other nations, so the problem seems intrinsic in our domestic system.

When 50 million Americans don’t have medical coverage and the middle class struggles to pay, we’re staring down that line where private industry is proving either unable or unwilling to efficiently provide the important services we need.

Just as government rescued California from energy rape, so it must now step in to end the health care fleecing we endure.

There’s no need for government to commandeer the entire industry. That would stifle innovation.

Still, lines of dysfunction and abuse have been crossed and health care needs a firm, guiding hand to return to sane conditions.

Once a viable public option is available to everyone, watch your insurance company hustle to sharpen pencils and get competitive again.

That’s the power of a progressive government “nudge.”

We all recognize our sense of “common sense” is today as fragmented on health care as on our sensibilities in transportation.

Still, as premiums fall and access increases, we’ll be united again as Americans, improving living for all of us — rich, poor, or in between.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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