Have you noticed: If you commute the same way to work at about the same time every day, you see the same people?
I often seem to wind up behind a guy with a bumper sticker that says something like, "Honk if you want me to pay for your health care."
Of course, I want to honk — not for any big political reason, but just because I kind of like to take people up on an invitation. Plus, I like presents. Honestly, I would be happy with, say, a Starbucks card, and trust me — I would reciprocate.
And if I ever did get that sit-down over a Starbucks, I'd want to ask the guy, "Who are you talking to, really?"
Are you talking to me? My family? My neighbors?
I assume it's not aimed at his own family, or anybody he thinks is part of his family. Since he is driving a nice-looking truck, I am just going to take a guess that he is doing well enough to provide health care for his own children, if he has them.
But I would like to tell him if his parents are old enough, my guess is, I am already helping to pay something for their care through Social Security or Medicare, just as he is probably already contributing something for mine.
And I want to ask him, how do you feel about that deal? Do you think they are worthy? What would convince you?
Does it matter that my father served in the second World War, was honorably discharged, came home and went back to college but dropped out to help support his younger siblings? That my mother stayed home until we were all in school, and then worked in a school and then a well-known department store, of which she was so proud she continued to brag about it long after she retired?
And, when it's his turn, I wonder what he would say to convince me.
Can I just tell you? It seems to me the hard political fights we have just experienced and those that are about to come have at least as much to do with our moral judgments as they do with our economic ones. For sure, some people oppose the economic stimulus package — which was initiated under the last president — and the health care overhaul and the auto industry bailout — under the current one — because they honestly believe the government's footprint on the economy is growing too large, and that footprint will make the economy less dynamic and less competitive in the long run.
But as I think my commuting buddy's bumper sticker amply demonstrates, some of it is surely about our own personal views about who is worthy and of what.
For my own part, I will confess, it makes absolutely no rational economic or moral sense to me to tie basic health care to a job. If you have ever bought a sandwich that you didn't make yourself, flown on an airplane with other people or, for that matter, sent your kid to school, then it seems to me you should be as interested in the health of the person sitting next to you or your kid as you are in your own.
But I also wonder if the diversity that many of us view as a strength of this country — and, however we feel about it, is a fact of this country — makes it that much harder to be honest about the judgments we are, in fact, making.
It is simply a fact that just as some problems affect some groups more profoundly than others, the remedies will as well. And it is also a fact that some groups, more than others, have benefited from this country's ample opportunities, and those advantages persist to this day.
How do we like those deals? What would we do to change it?
And now we are faced with another big political test: reducing our enormous budget deficit. And to bring that down to size, there is no doubt that a vast smorgasbord of entitlements and sacred budget cows will have to be curtailed. It is going to be very interesting to me to see how we are going to explain to each other who we think should suffer and who should not, and why.
I can't wait to see the bumper stickers: Honk if you want me to sacrifice everything, and yourself nothing?