America, Love It or Heal It

A blog about health, health care, and health care reform

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I stand with the 99%.

I stand with the 99%.

I have a choice, you see. I don’t have to stand with the 99%. I have an advanced degree, make a low six-figure income in an extremely high-demand field, and if I wanted, could double or triple my income without much thought beyond having to move somewhere I wouldn’t too much like. I have a rock-solid job with even greater future opportunity, as well as health coverage and a stellar disability insurance policy that costs as much as some families spend on food in a month. That doesn’t make me a millionaire (indeed, because of immense school debt and a rapid pay-down plan, there’s about three-digits worth of cash in my combined accounts at the end of any given month), but I identify with the 1% elite because I have the rarest of commodities these days: security.

But I choose to stand with the 99%.

I stand with the 99% because the biggest threat to my security is – no surprise – the $300,000 in student loan debt it took me to get to where I am today. My very generous middle-class parents took me through my undergraduate years, but I paid in cash and the blood for the graduate education – at a notorious poorly funded state school – that brought me to where I am today. I have no doubt that the nay-sayers are correct in predicting that the next great crash will be the student loan debt bubble (standing in great part on the shoulders of the rapacious for-profit vo-tech schooling institutions, but increasingly standing on the slumped shoulders of public school grads like myself).

I stand with the 99% because I know that if you reach back more than a generation or two, my people are not the people of the 1%. In the four corners of European mutt heritage from which I was hybridized, two lineages came to America escaping the twin beasts of poverty and famine back home, one’s history has been lost to the sands of time, and one came from a line of wealth but smartly realized that their people were not welcome in pre-War Europe. My people are not Daughters of the American Revolution people; my people are by wide majority immigrants and paupers but for a blip that started around 1950 and has no guarantee of continuing beyond my generation. There is no blue in blood in my veins; my people were always the 99%. I have no illusions about what I deserve today, and no illusions about its permanency into the next generation.

Even if I can rise above the 99%, I know that I am not so wealthy that I can take my friends and family with me into the magical 1%: my sister, for example, and her wonderful blended family that now welcomes seven children under its umbrella, the eldest two of whom are facing down college tuition costs with five more bringing up the rear on a couple of blue-collar salaries. Or my brother – an Iraq vet, paramedic, and firefighter – whose older daughter is marked by the chronic stigmata of surviving a year in intensive care then rehab with a rare childhood leukemia, and who will never be insurable on the private market. I can carry myself into the 1%, but if my family falters back in the mire of unpayable college tuition and bank-breaking health care costs and chronic debt, what have I won? For this reason too, I stand with the 99%.

I stand with the 99% because when I envision the world I want to live in, I do not envision a rarefied gated community to which I have a coveted key, surrounded by the ghetto of the world I used to be a part of. When I envision the world I want to live in, I do not see a world of poverty and desperation to which I am somehow granted immunity; I see a world in which we share livable cities and breathable air. I stand with the 99% because nothing about the world that I want to live in jives with the world we will create if we allow America to become a third-world nation of haves and have-nots.

Humanity has progressed through the millennia toward milestones meant to make life incrementally easier: increased agricultural production bent on easing food insecurity; diplomacy so that war was not the first answer; arts and music to make life beautiful; medicine to heal. Humanity did not bother to invent fire, the wheel, the internal combustion engine, and one-touch online ordering in order that we may work double the work hours of our parents at a fraction the pay and die younger for our troubles. Our ancestors did not do go through the trouble of millennia of invention and progress so that we could suffer like medieval peasants; our people did this so we could flower. Our people did this so that we could spend less time toiling in fields and slaving at stoves, more time playing with our kids and writing novels and shooting at beer cans and having backyard cook-outs and climbing mountains and tinkering in the garage with that invention that may be the next greatest thing or next week’s trash: more time being human and more time stretching the limits of what it means to be human.

Should we be proud of these moments of adversity overcome, these days when we struggled to make ends meet and survived and provided for our families, when we challenged the Greatest Generation on their home turf of hardship and hard work? Damn well we should be proud. I am proud that while the majority of my graduate school compatriots were on vacation breaks funded by parents or working partners, I worked 80-hour weeks at contract jobs on marine construction sites and came back so exhausted I spent the first half of the quarter catching up on sleep while pulling night shifts on academic rotations. People who are working three jobs at 60-70 hours per week through these crisis times should be able to look back with pride and tears and talk about 2011 the way our grandparents talk about the Depression. We should be proud of these things we survive.

But we should never strive to embrace them.

We should never, ever strive to make the 70-hour work week the norm, to make two jobs the minimal and three jobs the expectation. We should never allow the good old Protestant work ethic to be co-opted by neo-feudalism to the point where we begin to enforce the high-expectations/low-pay ethic on ourselves. Those who want to work 60- or 70-hour weeks should be doubly rewarded – not used to foment a new common denominator. Because if 60-70 hours a week becomes the norm, the new just-getting-by, there then becomes no way to get ahead. No way to work that mortgage down in advance and retire a little better than you might have otherwise. No way to cushion for the stochastic blow of a slow year in your industry or a bum shoulder you need surgery for. No way to set a little aside so you can take that brave step out onto the plank, quit your job, open that small business and become one of the “job creators.” No way to dream that your children might one day have it better than you. No way to save for the six months to might want to take off one day to follow your dream, or stay home with your first baby, or take care of your father in the last months of his life. No way to become anything more than a cog in the grinding wheel of someone else’s profits.

I stand with the 99% because I stand for the American way. This is not a way of laziness or sloth, this is a way that works hard but believes firmly in the limits of hard work. This is a way that believes in a good solid eight-hour day followed by a good solid eight hours of doing the other business of life: raising kids, reading a book, cooking a meal at home, watching trashy TV, keeping up on the events of your world, running in the rain, caring for your ill or your young, doing whatever it is that you do. And then, getting a good solid eight hours of sleep. Some call this “European socialism;” the rest of us call this “the American dream.”

I have a choice, and I choose to stand with the 99%. I stand with the 99%, and I am not alone.