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Do not despair the debt debate: Crises as opportunities to further the fight for health justice

The neoliberal right has exploited the debt crisis, as it did the economic crisis, to further its agenda of retrenching the hard won health benefits of workers and the meek and apologetic left, only too happy to oblige, has shrunk from defending these rights.

This tactic, described as the “the shock doctrine” by Naomi Klein in her New York Times best selling book, exploits public disorientation following collective shocks such as wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters to institute economic reforms that would ordinarily be too unpopular to pass democratically. Unfortunately, the neoliberal right is only too familiar with this thesis. Klein cites Milton Friedman, father of neoliberal economics, as saying, “only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.”

Worse still, the debt debate, as with the economic crisis, has reduced our choice set to two options: bad or worse. Either employees face mass lay-offs or they must accept economic austerity in the form of reduced benefits, pay and pensions.

Raising taxes on the wealthy is off the agenda because of its alleged job killing qualities forcing a choice over which and how much public spending will be slashed. Public employees, unions and the public sector generally has been the scapegoat for a failing economy and slashing benefits, including health care, is depicted as the only logical solution to our debt debacle.

In the mean time, as Klein describes, the profits of corporate bail-outs and tax breaks to businesses are privatized, and the risks continue to be socialized with diminishing public coffers.

Efforts to achieve health justice will be grim until this choice set is expanded or reversed.  However, contrary to the depiction in the media, compromise is not in fact the solution, but the problem. The problem is not divided government, as has been advanced as a common trope, but rather that the two parties are too close together.

Hopeful voters who look to democrats for the answers are doomed to disappointment. The democrats have either been unable or unwilling to fight to protect the rights of workers, the poor and vulnerable.

We now face a terrible dilemma as our choice set is again limited: Either we reelect Obama, sending a signal that we approve of his performance, or we vote for a republican whose policies will only further decimate our social rights. Even what we refrain from doing can have an impact on health and social justice. Not voting in protest may by default be a vote for the far right.

Only through broader political representation can we hope to overcome this false choice between bad and worse.  I therefore urge readers to send a clear message this election season and vote for a third party candidate whose views are more in line with a progressive social policy agenda, including greater health justice.

Research the stance of third party candidates in your area and even register in strategic districts where viable third parties are running if possible. Do not be complacent in the face of social injustice and do not despair.

Economic and political crises can also be exploited in the opposite direction from the course that recent politics has taken to strengthen the rights of workers and the disenfranchised and enhance social justice as occurred in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Crises create political windows of opportunity or critical junctures, which allow political space for vast change.  Only we can decide on the direction that change will take.

Image source: iStock Photos

Health Justice CT provides a public forum for conversations, ideas and collective action. The opinion expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of HealthJusticeCT or our funder. 

About Ashley Fox

Ashley Fox, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Department of Health Evidence and Policy. Learn more about Ashley here.

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