Picking At a Scab

I’ve been carrying around an op-ed piece written by a physician entitled “Poverty is Not a Death Sentence.” It’s from Senator Rand Paul, the ophthalmologist Tea Party Republican Libertarian from Kentucky. His father, presidential candidate Congressman Ron Paul, is also a physician, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

As I would glance at a sentence or two, wincing visibly, I realized this preoccupation of mine was similar to something I did at age nine or so. A clumsy child, I fell frequently and skinned my knees. As they healed, I’d relentlessly rub, scratch, lift, and pick at my scab. It hurt a bit but I just couldn’t stop.

This came to mind reading Rand Paul.

To some extent (but not much) we need to cut Rand Paul some slack. After all, he did endure an upper middle class household with Dr Ron Paul as his dad. Congressman Paul reminds me of too many professors I endured in medical school. During rounds, they’d badger you incessantly with fact after fact (some true, others likely not), all delivered with just enough irony to humiliate you for your ignorance. These professors were highly skilled at sabotaging a discussion by simply cutting you off with still more facts. Finally you nodded in dumb agreement just to get them to stop talking.

Knowing this, imagine little toddler Rand lulled to sleep by Dr Ron explaining laissez faire capitalism while other children were tucked safely in their gated communities, drifting off to Goodnight, Moon.

It’s important to know that both these doctors, our first ever father-son tag team of Congresspersons, are serious acolytes of the philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand, author of the mega best-selling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). You can learn more about her philosophy, called Objectivism, by clicking that link or you can accept that everything you’ll need to know about this philosophy lies within the title of her non-fiction The Virtue of Selfishness.

Ayn Rand was an undeniably very smart but very difficult person who, like my professors or Dr. Ron, tolerated no difference of opinion. She would not at all have been offended by one recent liberal tag as “the godless goddess of greed.” There are a couple of good movies about her, one a documentary and the other starring Helen Mirren chewing up scenery and sounding just a little bit like Ron Paul himself.

Other famous Ayn Rand devotees are Alan Greenspan, many Republican congressmen, and, oddly enough, John Mackey, president of Whole Foods, who regards her as instrumental in the success of his company. Since Greenspan’s policies largely contributed to our current economic meltdown, it’s not impossible to consider the recession a result of several people in high places becoming dangerously inspired by a pair of cultish, overly melodramatic, and not particularly well-written novels.

Back to the scab
Here’s why Senator/Dr Rand’s op-ed so irritates me: Like a typical Ayn Rand Objectivist, if a problem like poverty exists he blames the victim. Even though he allegedly represents people from hardscrabble Kentucky, where hookworm is still a real diagnosis, according to Senator Rand these people aren’t so bad off because the average poor household has a car, two color TVs, a DVD player, and an Xbox. It’s the old welfare queen mentality of the Reagan years.

When it comes to health care, Senator Paul Rand’s comments are truly irritating. He quotes a study from a right-wing think tank allegedly showing that America’s poor were not hungry, were able to get medical care as necessary, and can afford all essential needs. In fact (here’s my favorite), health care for the poor is so good that “an American citizen can expect to live nearly twice as long as in some African countries.” This is true, I guess, surviving as we do to age 78, the US is 36th on the world’s life expectancy charts, far below all of Europe and Canada, but slamming the bejesus out of Swaziland, where a new baby born will be lucky if she reaches 32.

Senator Rand’s next point is very Ayn Rand: If America’s poor do have any health issues, it’s their own fault. A full third of the poor still smoke, and with all the cheap junk food they buy they’re obese and never exercise. If only they’d pull themselves up by their bootstraps (assuming they own bootstraps), burn a few calories, and watch less of one of their two TVs, they could avoid all that early-onset diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

To put it simply, Ayn Rand abhorred compassion, charity, and government support of anything. She had an immense skill for upending preconceived ideas about wealth and poverty and recasting the very rich as victims of society, forced as they are to pay high taxes and obey government regulations. When I was in college, her novels were immensely popular and required reading at the Young Conservatives Club.

I personally thought being an Ayn Rand devotee was a phase you went through when you were young, like being a Communist, Socialist, or Moonie. But like most things, I was wrong. She was dubbed the literary laureate of the Reagan years and virtually every political analyst agrees that she’s been the single greatest influence on Libertarians and Tea Party types.

So, I’ll keep picking at my scab by re-reading in the senator’s op-ed piece that the poor are all just fine, thank you, fat and sassy with their Xboxes and color TVs. I’ll try not to be disturbed by the report that 20% of Chicagoans go to bed hungry every night, or that 21% of Senator Paul’s home state is impoverished, with a heartbreaking 25% of children living in poverty.

With Republican presidential candidates tripping over themselves to align with the Tea Party, it might be a good idea (for your future health’s sake) to learn a little about Ayn Rand. Obamacare could actually be overturned in the next few years. If you look at the placards being held at Tea Party rallies protesting Obamacare, you’ll see “I am John Galt.”

Shouldn’t you know why?

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

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17 comments on “Picking At a Scab
  1. Susanne Sklar says:

    Atlas Shrugged is not an example of good writing; its flaws are the sort of thing you notice after a few years of good education. Shrill and sloppy writing is indicative of shrill and sloppy thought. Will cultural historians cite Ayn Rand as a contributing factor in America’s decline? Sometimes I wonder if being a Blake scholar is a bit indulgent (that’s what I do) — but his work abounds with intelligent compassion and creative social responsibility. It’s time to unleash such vision and JOY!

  2. Sharon Rukin says:

    Yes…on a scale of moral-ethical development, Ayn Rand would rank very low because there is no effort (and maybe no ability) to put herself in another’s shoes. There is also no recognition of how, anyone who has had any “success” stands on the shoulders of all the rest of us.

  3. Deb Morrin says:

    Wow a great commentary. Thank you. Another statistic from the US Bureau of Census; 40% of adult men age 30 and younger have incomes well below the poverty line and only make ends meet by living at home or with relatives. What does that say about the economy, the ability of the young to marry, form new households, have children – all drivers of economic growth? This “let them eat cake” philosophy of the tea partiers and right wing conservatives clearly falls far short.

  4. Chris Gaddis says:

    Why should I work hard to produce if the Government is going to take most of my efforts at the point of a gun, and give it to those who produce nothing?

    The failure in our society today is due not to free enterprise, but to monopoly capitalism, regulatory capture, and rampant fraud by TBTF banks that goes unpunished to this day.

    I am John Galt and I gargle with homemade colloidal silver.

  5. Sophia Jolie says:

    Yes, Dr. Edelberg, you are spot on about Ayn Rand and the phase of Objectivism. As a college student, I grew up on Atlas Shrugged and worshipped the capitalism loving, poverty hating characters. I wanted to model myself after them and realized, after the phase wore off, that it was an impossible philosophy to live by and still be a good human being. I think the Middle Way of Buddhism is a more balanced approach to life. Capitalism is a good thing, as long as it embraces compassion, kindness and empathy.

    I do have to say, however, having my own successful business (which I started with my bootstraps!) and having family members not wanting to work and earn their keep, it does make me appreciate Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Many times I feel used up after working so hard to earn an income and seeing my siblings resentful on my success, after they have borrowed money from me just to “survive”. It is an age old problem and Ayn Rand was spot on about many of the poor wanting a free ride. Some people can pull themselves out of poverty, even if they don’t have any bootstraps, and others have no interest in making the effort. I have seen both. My life is a testament, as Ayn Rand would say, to this. If our government prioritized education and didn’t make it so financially prohibitive, poverty would decrease a thousandfold. And by the way, it does bother me to see obese people waddling about resenting those who actually make an effort and succeed. There are two types of people, those who choose to make a change in their life and those who blame others for their misery. I have seen both and it is painful to try to help those who refuse to help themselves. The key is free education. Tax dollars well spent….

  6. Lilliana Ashbrennet says:

    The key is higher education. But as a former higher education financial aid advisor at a neighboring big 10 school, the poor are the ones who get a free education (at any state school) with all the grants they receive! So how is that working out for them… They actually have to enroll in order to reap the benefits that could be handed to them on a silver platter.

  7. Beverly Bojanowski says:

    I loved this article. In the middle I thought maybe I somehow clicked on Paul Krugman – but no it’s Dr. Edelman. It puzzles me that conservatives push the idea we are a “Christian nation” and then undermine any policies that would offer support to those less fortunate.

  8. Karen McGinnis says:

    Dr. Edelberg writes great articles!!

  9. Matt says:

    Interesting perspective indeed! I would hope that you can agree with sober-minded libertarians like myself that government run health care is not the only thing standing between Kentucky’s poor and shangra-la. The blog assails greed in general and I believe a misallocation of health care resources in specific. First – Tell me, is there a society that you know of that doesn’t run on greed? Do you think China doesn’t run on greed? Do you think France doesn’t run on greed? The great achievements of civilization have not come from government beaurucrats, but from individuals following their own interests. Science, music, art, philosophy, inventory, etc come from the minds of women and men following their own interests (not all greed is monetary!). The record of history is unequivicolly clear that the only system that has ever lifted the masses from the grinding poverty that you’re talking about is capitalism and largely free trade. Where are these better angels who will come and organize society for us and not succumb to greed? Why is political self-interest somehow nobeler than economic self-interest? Why do we believe that the beuaracrat is a better person? Is he not human also? You read Ayn Rand and see an evil corporate boss. I read Ayn Rand see the empowerment of every single person on earth. Where is the real joy and optimism in humanity?

  10. Matt says:

    In the interest of saving everyone who wishes that I wouldn’t frequent this blog, you can skip this one! Dr. E compares U.S. life expectancy to thatof Europeans, and draws the inference that government provided health care is the difference. I miss the connection. European portion control is much better than American, so the Europeans tend to be less obecse – a factor contributing to their longer lives. How would government funded health care change the size of a portion at McDonalds or Applebees? Europeans drive fewer miles because works out to something like $12/gal. Riding a bike and walking is better daily exercise, and would contribute to longer life. How would government funded health care change the layout and traffic patterns of American cities? Further, if you said to someone on their death bed at age 78 “You could have lived for 10 more years if you hadn’t eaten so many dinners out with your family and if you had exercised at night instead of being with your kids.” I’m not sure you’d get many takers. That be an extreme example, but it seems really wrong of me to expect that living longer really is the ultimate goal. Life is about choices (as adults, we have to cope with that reality). I get really worried when a government beauracrat gets to decide for you and your family how valuable your health is to you. Maybe its REALLY important, maybe it’s not, either way, it’s your choice.

  11. sherrykay says:

    From the comments I see that people are primed to either see the article as 100% about their own views (complimentary), or as an all out attack on freedom and free enterprise. This exposes the crux of our contemporary difficulties. We do not have to put labels and walls around us or others. The issues are what we are discussing, and they are complex. The doctor is pointing out the contradictions between the rhetoric and the reality. The overall well-being of our nation is related directly tied to the well being of its citizens. Poverty results from many causes, which have been studied; so the issue is how to create the change we want to see. We need as many people as possible have access to nutritious food, education, and adequate medical care. How do we get there? It will take a variety of initiatives from public non-profits, to private enterprise and government efforts. Regardless of the “why,” the U.S. is in serious trouble. When an increasing segment of our population falls below 50% of the minimum standards for health, mortality, education, income, employment, etc., and lower than what we used to call “developing nations,” (let alone European nations) there is no more time for political rhetoric. Be part of the solution or you are part of the problem.

  12. Betsey Arias O'Brien says:

    I guess Dr. Paul hasn’t read up on cancer’s impact in our country. Leading experts in the field state unequivocally that poverty is a carcinogen. Drastically higher death rates among the poor, the uninsured and the disenfranchised prove the point. And while cancer is a major killer — causing 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S. — it’s just one of many diseases we must address in order to improve our nation’s health. There’s good info here for those who want stats: http://ahier.blogspot.com/2011/06/cancer-death-rates-decline-but.html

  13. Cathy says:

    Another well-written, beautifully thought out article by Dr. E. I’m with Beverly~always amazed and saddened that “Christian” ideas are tossed around but not truly followed….

  14. Dr E says:

    Hi Matt
    Actually, the data have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that government funded health care is a significant factor in the overall health and longevity of a society. The U.S. healthcare system became a ‘for profit’ enterprise at the same time Canada inaugurated their national healthcare. From the collected data, Canadians have less heart disease, obesity, strokes and diabetes. They live longer and healthier lives and most important, no Canadian is deprived of access to the system.
    I think that your perception of worldwide pervasive greed may have its origins in an overreading of Ayn Rand. Overall, the Europeans have created systems of social support that you would probably regard as offensive. Remember that America was created by an exodus of Europeans who didn’t like “the system” whether that system was political or religious. Although our Daniel Boone independent frontiersman mentality has a romantic ring to it, the end result is that after 250 years, many Americans endlessly vote against social support benefits (like heath care) that would help everybody. Reasonable compassion for the welfare of others is disparaged as ‘socialism,’ feeding hungry children as ‘entitlements.’ Of course, I’ve never heard of any Libertarian actually burning his Medicare card or a Tea Party member returning his Social Security check, so the subtext of voting against social welfare really means against the welfare of others.
    Concerning your feeling of pervasive greed: I am sure you’re aware that European entrepreneurs dislike attempting to create start-ups in Europe because of excessive government regulations. They regard the U.S. as the land of opportunity just because we turn a blind eye to greed. Basically, they are taking advantage of the fact that we allow unrestricted and rampant ‘greedism,’ free from all those boring government regulations. Although our relatively unrestricted system is great if you’re an entrepreneur, the fact that the U.S. has by far the world’s highest rate of antidepressant use (10% of our population over age 9), that the CEO of Wal-Mart makes in one hour (!) what the average employee of Wal-Mart makes in one year means that something, somewhere has gone seriously and tragically wrong.

  15. Karin Urban says:

    Gosh, I miss seeing you–you are everything a doctor should be.

  16. Beverly Wegrich says:

    Your newsletters are absolutely THE best!
    As a Canadian, now residing in the U.S. -your rants offer wisdom not found elsewhere.
    Keep up the good work.
    I am off to re-read some Ayn Rand.

  17. Lori says:

    Great Article!

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