Roger Cohen on Narcissism and Health Care

In today’s New York Times Roger Cohen reflects on the relationship between narcissism and America’s health care problem. Here a few snippets:

Community — a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions — has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection…

I was thinking of this during a recent spell as a grand juror. Thrown together for two weeks at Brooklyn Supreme Court with 22 other jurors, I was struck by how rare it is now in American life to be gathered, physically, with an array of other folk of different ages, backgrounds, skin colors, beliefs, faiths, tastes, education levels and political convictions and be obliged to work out your differences in order to get the job done.

It was not always easy, of course; not easy to deal with the fidgety paramedic chewing chips through murder testimony, the scattershot flirtations of the former rhythm-and-blues musician, the off-point ruminations of the old guy who knew he was always right, the intermittent tedium and incoherence.

I can still hear the juror next to me. “I work at 311” — the number New Yorkers dial with complaints or questions about the city. “Drives me nuts, been doing it five years. People treat you like idiots. Most of the time it’s water seeping into basements, sewage systems blocked. At least my job hasn’t been outsourced to Bangalore. People ask me, ‘You in New York?’ They ask me, ‘Are you a human being or a robot?’ Sometimes I say, “I … AM … A … ROBOT.’ But we’ve got supervisors listening to calls. One thing that drives me crazy is all the people who speak slowly, as if I’m an idiot. I tell them, ‘You can speak faster, you know!’ Jury duty’s actually a relief!”

In a way, it was — a relief from being alone on a phone or in front of a screen. We got to know each other’s tics and, having dealt with killing and rape and assault and insurance fraud, we all embraced at the end. Oh unthinkable act, we’d done something selfless for the commonweal, learned to listen to each other, accepted differences and argued our way to decisions…

Americans don’t want a European nanny state — fine! But, as a lawyer friend, Manuel Wally, put it to me, “When it comes to health it makes sense to involve government, which is accountable to the people, rather than corporations, which are accountable to shareholders.”

All the fear-mongering talk of “nationalizing” 17 percent of the economy is nonsense. Government, through Medicare and Medicaid, is already administering almost half of American health care and doing so with less waste than the private sector. Per capita Medicare costs for common benefits grew 4.9 percent between 1998 and 2008, against 7.1 percent for private insurers. Why not offer Medicare as a choice — a choice — to everyone? Aren’t Republicans about choice?…