This is the twelfth essay in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.
As this series evolves, I ricochet between launching test balloons for specific ideas (new Constitution, Universal Service, Universal Basic Income) and advocating for general changes to our social, economic, or political systems (Impact taxes, immigration reform). This essay, the last for a while though probably not the last ever, explores how a concept so boring—insurance—might be appropriated as an approach to achieving greater equity.
The underlying purpose of insurance is simple: pool resources in order to address tragedies that could, in theory, happen to many though, in fact, they will only happen to a few. The bigger the pool of insured, the cheaper an individual’s coverage, because risk is spread wide. Almost all of us insure our homes against fire because, although the chance of our house burning down is small, a fire would be a major personal catastrophe. Since so many of us purchase home insurance, the annual cost is reasonable. This is less true, say, of travel insurance, which is relatively expensive for what it covers because only a small proportion of travelers purchase it. Similarly, many more of us have medical insurance than dental insurance, since a major medical event is more devastating than most dental problems.
Although insurance is a proven way to pool collective risk, like so many aspects of our society, it’s been contorted by our profit hungry system. Insurance has a bad rap; often deserved. Two main reasons. First, the ratio between insurance premiums and distributions to disaster victims often exceeds the mere cost of administration: insurance companies make giant profits. Second, those same companies habitually deny claims. According to the US Department of Labor, about 1 in 7 health insurance claims in the US are denied. The reasons may be simple as misfiled forms, misunderstood scope of coverage, or network provider restrictions. But the result is that many of us—most of us—feel misused by an overly complex system that seems to work better for the insurers than the insured.
I am fast approaching the demographic most fixated on insurance: senior citizen. Many of my friends are already there. I tend to drift off in bemused reverie whenever conversations detour into opinions about ‘Part B’ and “Prescription Drug Plans.’ When the time comes, I’ll assemble appropriate coverage, though I doubt I’ll make an avocation out of the medical labyrinth.
Within Medicare’ single payer approach, not all plans and all people are treated equally; for those ineligible for Medicare, the United States is an even more unfair place. Add the potential of needing a nursing home, or memory care to your future, and the prevailing attitude is: I don’t have enough money, or enough coverage. Therefore, I must look out for myself.
And so each of us angles to get the right-fit insurance; we scramble to accumulate maximum retirement resources. This is exactly where the powers of economic ‘expansion’ and consumption want us to be: forever worried to purchase more protection against every perceived calamity. This perspective that leads to only one conclusion: I will never have enough.
I cannot save enough money or buy enough insurance to protect me from every misery that could potentially befall me. And yet, since every malady will not befall every person, collectively we have enough to care and comfort us all. Actually, we have more than enough. If only we start to view our assets in a different light. If we pool our resources and share our risk.
Sounds simple. Will be darned difficult to do. Because it requires a sea change in attitude and behavior. It requires that we put trust in a collaborative endeavor rather than personal accounts; that we pay premiums, however defined, rather than private deposits; that we believe we’ll receive the benefits we need, if and when we need them. It requires that everyone honor the intent of the system: that the insured do not abuse; that the insurers do not gouge. It requires that those of us fortunate enough to age easily not grouse about benefits we did not receive; rather that we be grateful that we never suffered the need.
My example focuses on sharing risk in advancing age; my metaphor is insurance. But the concept can be extrapolated to virtually every aspect of our lives. The hallmark of a healthy society is not how it promotes personal gain, how it pits neighbor against neighbor in a zero-sum game that worships winners and castigates losers. The hallmark of a healthy society lies in appreciating that our optimal capabilities are derived from leaning into each other, supporting each other, teaching, housing, feeding, healing each other. An equitable society acknowledges and celebrates individual ability and achievement, and then channels those attributes to benefit everyone. Consider it social insurance.