More than 90 years ago, in the wake of other progressive reforms like workers comp, universal health insurance was rapidly gaining momentum.
"At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is. More than nine decades ago, Fisher thought that universal health coverage was just around the corner. “Within another six months, it will be a burning question,” he predicted.Well, not exactly. Although the idea had widespread support -- including the American Medical Association -- it ran into a snag. In his speech, Fisher made this observation:
“Germany showed the way in 1883,” Fisher told his audience. “Her wonderful industrial progress since that time, her comparative freedom from poverty . . . and the physical preparedness of her soldiery, are presumably due, in considerable measure, to health insurance.”He was referring to the year that Otto von Bismarck introduced his health insurance bill in Germany -- the same Bismarck who unified Germany and laid the groundwork for the capitalism on steroids that made turn-of-the century Germany an industrial and military juggernaut. And that was the snag.
The United States declared war with Germany in April, 1917. Health care was dead. Critics said that it was “made in Germany” and likely to result in the “Prussianization of America.” In California, where the legislature had passed a constitutional amendment providing for universal health insurance, it was put on the ballot for ratification: a federation of insurance companies took out an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle warning that it “would spell social ruin to the United States.” Every voter in the state received in the mail a pamphlet with a picture of the Kaiser and the words “Born in Germany. Do you want it in California?”And there you have it. The inalienable right to be stupid -- since health insurance worked for our enemy, we shouldn't have anything to do with it. Cut off your nose to spite your face, whatever.
In today's NYT Paul Krugman writes about the current healthcare struggle Reform or Else. Given the nonstop history of stupidity for most of the last century, the odds are it will prevail again -- unless we make our voices heard.