Friday, September 22, 2006

Health Care and the Value of Labor

You know the standard spiel: "Runaway health care price inflation has made it unaffordable for employers to provide health benefits for their employees."

On the surface, it sounds perhaps plausible. But step back and look at what they're really saying. Which is something a bit more stark.

What they're saying is simply this: under the current value system, many, perhaps most, American workers don't produce enough economic output to earn the right to stay alive.

Not to get all Marxist or anything, but businesses use two things: labor and capital. In many cases, there's a simple tradeoff between the two. If you find that you can buy and operate a backhoe (capital) for less money than you can employ a gang of ditchdiggers (labor), then you should fire your diggers and trade in their shovels for a down payment on the backhoe. On the other hand, if the ditchdiggers work cheaply enough, maybe you're better off keeping them. According to capitalist values, this is a simple business decision. (And, by the way, if you decide wrongly your smarter competitors, whose costs are lower, will drive you out of business.)

So labor and capital are more or less interchangeable. In particular, they both have "operating costs". Wages and benefits for labor, and energy, maintenance and repairs for capital equipment.

Think of health care as "maintenance and repairs" for labor.

If a machine doesn't return more value than its cost of operation, a good capitalist will get rid of it. If the backhoe in the above example required $5,000 in repairs every month, it probably couldn't earn its keep. It would have virtually no market value, so you'd use it until it broke down, and consign it to the scrap heap.

When an employer says it can't afford to provide health care to employees, it's saying that, like the troublesome backhoe, the employees don't generate enough economic return to justify spending money on their maintenance and repairs. And the economic incentive to use them until they break down, and then discard them, is exactly the same. Employees become disposable. (Even better, one can rent them in foreign countries where they cost much less and their government pays for their repair and maintenance.)

As long as we live in a dog-eat-dog capitalist society, employers will never value employees above their strict economic value vis-a-vis substitutes for their labor. If you're a dog-eat-dog capitalist, you think this is the way things are supposed to be. So we are confronted by the fact that employers are not where to look for appreciation of the intrinsic worth of human beings. No, it is only society that can provide--and enforce--this value. And enforcing this value means being willing to sacrifice some other economic good in order to support the repair and maintenance of human beings.

This says clearly to me that employers should NOT be in the business of providing health benefits. In fact, it's a crazy idea. It's society's job, and the way to do it is through universal health care as a basic human right.

Just like, you know, almost every other advanced nation in the world has already realized.