Thursday, May 01, 2008
The Serenity Prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, hangs on countless American walls. I grew up with it. Whatever the reader's religious belief, or lack thereof, the prayer packs a world of comfort in a few simple lines. The most popular version goes:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
Our presidential contenders only occasionally incorporate these teachings into their messages. A sharp dose of reality can be healthy to the public, but candidates who inject it often pay a political price. People don't want to hear that they must adjust to something they don't like. They want the thing changed.
One thing that can't be changed right now is higher gasoline prices. Thus, calls by Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton to suspend the federal gas tax over the summer are worse than pandering. They're counterproductive.
The 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gas tax is a drop in the rising tide of fuel costs, up $1.30 from 18 months ago. Shelving it for a few months is a silly "fix" that distracts from what can be done to bring about a lasting solution -- that is, cut oil use and switch to renewable energy sources.
Only Democrat Barack Obama had the fortitude to tell American consumers that the exit from high oil prices is the door leading away from oil. He noted that the tax holiday would save the average consumer a mere $30 and jeopardize funds needed for roads and bridges.
McCain plays teller-of-hard-truths when he informs hurting Rustbelt workers that the loss of many factory jobs cannot be reversed. But he fell short on proposing what can be changed, which is a strengthened social safety net to ensure that no American worker go without health coverage.
He purported to address this matter in his newly unveiled health-care plan. Its main virtue is the unlinking of health coverage from place of employment. (That makes sense in today's churning labor market, though the same thing could be accomplished by extending the government-run Medicare program to everyone.)
But McCain's "market-based" concept lacks the wisdom to acknowledge what can't be changed -- that private insurers will always avoid people with costly medical conditions. McCain's idea of a government-run pool to cover the sick ones turns his plan into another bonanza for the insurance industry. It lets insurers make a pile selling their policies to healthy people, while the taxpayers are stuck with the expensive patients.
On this issue, Clinton is the only leading candidate to show true grit and deliver a hard fact that many don't want to hear: Universal coverage cannot happen unless everyone participates in the system. This means that healthy people who don't feel like buying health coverage have to be dragged in.
The compulsory part of her program was seized on and distorted by her opponents. Obama argued that people don't buy health insurance only because they can't afford it. This ignores that Clinton's plan would have paid for the poor's coverage, and it lets the young and healthy off the hook. Obama's health-plan vision, like McCain's, would end up segregating the sick from the well.
The campaign of 2008 has all been about "change." The great irony is that the change so many middle- and lower-income Americans yearn for is change back to what they once had.
The candidates do well to push for change that can restore this lost sense of security. But today's besieged workers also need the wisdom to know which change can't be changed. That's not a popular political message, to be sure.
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