In case you’d like to debate about yesterday’s cartoon

(Cross-posted with my Tumblr)

So yesterday, between binge watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, I had an idea for what I considered a clever little cartoon. I spent a couple hours drawing and coloring, and then uploaded it to share with my modest little base of readers.

I must have struck a nerve, because today it took off on Twitter like nothing I’ve ever done. This is surprising, overwhelming, flattering, and exciting. As an aspiring author it’s important to get my name and my web site “out there,” and while I assure you that was not my intention (any more than it ever is when I put something on Twitter) I’m very grateful to all of you who felt my little cartoon was good enough to share. Thank you.

Meanwhile, tweets are arriving in my feed that want to debate me on the cartoon, most of them reciting the same old tired fallacies about socialized single-payer health care, especially the trope that people in Europe and Canada have to wait so long for care that they invariably die before receiving it. Mind you, every person telling me this is American—not one of them lives in a country where they’d have actual first-hand knowledge of this.

So with the disclaimer that I really just wanted to draw a clever little comic strip that called attention to a particular political interpretation of a show I’m enjoying, and those five panels were intended neither as a damning indictment of the American for-profit health care system nor an airtight case for single-payer socialized health insurance, I will indulge those who are looking for something more substantive.

As I said in my initial blog/Tumblr post (though not on Twitter) one thing that really intrigues me about Breaking Bad is how the concept reflects the collision of two of the worst, most colossal policy failures in the history of the United States: The for-profit health care system, and the War on Drugs.

The former has created a system where the quality of one’s life is entirely dependent on wealth. Based on what the US spends annually on our military, on our police, on our prisons, and on our surveillance apparatus, all of which are socialized, single-payer systems, we have clearly accepted the idea that tax dollars are worth spending to protect the lives of our citizens—at least from attack by other humans. When it comes to protection from malady, however, Americans have been left to fend for themselves.

In order to afford the medicine that protects his or her life, the average American has been forced to subjugate his or her liberty to an employer who would provide insurance, or the money to pay for such. This is an indefensible failure of our government to protect what it labels as inalienable rights.

…and I haven’t even left out the grotesque number of Americans who died because they either lacked health insurance or, worse by far, had the bad luck to have bought into an insurance company that let them die rather than sacrifice profits.

For the record, while I view the Affordable Care Act as a good thing that incrementally improved a terrible system in a few impactful ways, I think it is VERY FAR from the right solution, and I still want to see the US adopt a single-payer, government system similar to what EVERY OTHER INDUSTRIALIZED NATION has adopted.

So that’s health care. As to the War on Drugs, this is the other essential ingredient in Breaking Bad, because without the War on Drugs Walt and Jesse wouldn’t make any money cooking and selling meth. Without the War on Drugs there would be no powerful drug cartels moving back and forth across the US/Mexican border, and no wealthy drug dealers fighting over turf in the American Southwest.

Does that confuse you? It shouldn’t. The War on Drugs is probably the single most damaging policy in US history, considering both economic costs and impact to our social fabric. The War on Drugs has done nothing—nadda, zilch—to lessen the sale or consumption of illegal drugs in the United States. It has, however, created a massive prison population that drains our economy, instituted a permanent lower-class of people who, thanks to convictions, cannot find a decent job or a good place to live, and funneled trillions of dollars into the hands of drug dealers, cartels, and other organized crime.

Drug cartels worldwide, but especially in Mexico, depend ENTIRELY upon the United States black market for illegal drugs, created by the War on Drugs, for all of their funding and power.

If the US did what it SHOULD have done years ago, namely end the prohibition on illegal drugs, and regulate and tax the sale of those substances, that black market would immediately cease to exist. We’ve done it before, when we ended Prohibition of alcohol (a point Walt makes to Hank in Season One of the show, by the way) and in other less-famous cases, like when state governments instituted lotteries, taking over the “numbers racket” and its associated revenues from the Mafia. Both of these were massive industries under government-created black markets. Nowadays, I’d bet most of the people reading this have never had the chance to buy bootleg booze or to play an illegal numbers game.

So this is what makes Breaking Bad a uniquely American show. For the basic concept to be realistic, Walt needs to be thrown into a situation where the prohibitive cost of his medical care puts his life, and his family’s future, in clear and immediate peril, and he needs to see immense potential revenue from cooking meth. If not for America’s clinging to two obviously failed and destructive policies, the show’s basic concept wouldn’t work.

As Twitter user Dr. John (jp_dutch) tweeted in response to my cartoon, “Uncivil society leads to acts of desperation.” Well said.

So there, there’s a very serious post instead of a silly cartoon. If you’d like to debate me on the points I’ve made, I’m willing to do that—Tumblr is a better forum for it than Twitter with its 140-character limits. Your comments and thoughts are appreciated.

Oh, and for the record I do try to respond to everyone on Twitter who engages with me directly. I’m not used to the kind of traffic I’ve been seeing today, though, so if I miss any of you I do apologize. Thanks again for reading.

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Comments

  1. Alex says

    Lot of thoughts there, and I could get into a deep discussion here!

    It is tragic what is happening to the NHS -- I am almost certain that Danny Boyle’s tribute to it in last year’s Olympic opening ceremony was as much to say “stop fucking about with the NHS” as to celebrate it. I’ve re--watched the ceremony since the Health and Social Care Act (i.e. the bill that killed the NHS) passed, and it made me weep.

    Our only hope is that when the Tories are thrown out at the next election, as they surely will be, that Labour will go back to its pre-Blair roots and repeal the Act. Unlike the Affordable Care Act, our government had absolutely no mandate to do what they did -- in fact they’d explicitly promised not to meddle with the NHS in their party manifestoes. It’s the biggest “up yours” to the democratic process we’ve seen since Iraq.

    As to capitalism -- well I’m an unashamed social democrat (I’d say socialist over here, but I know it’s a dirty word in the US!), but I’m not averse to markets. They work better than government in a lot of circumstances, but certainly do not work for natural monopolies, or where there’s an ethical component, like healthcare.

    Have you read The Spirit Level? I think you’d enjoy it -- it explains a lot about the problems in our societies and is very evidence-based: http://www.amazon.com/The-Spirit-Level-Equality-Societies/dp/1608193411/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1381330028&sr=8-1&keywords=the+spirit+level

    • says

      Thanks Alex. I haven’t read The Spirit Level, and my reading backlog right now is quite full, but I’ll add it on there and get to it eventually. ;-)

      The funny thing about socialism in the US, of course, is that the word is maligned while the practice is quite accepted. We live every day supported by socialist institutions like the Post Office, public schools, police and firefighters, the Interstate Highway System, and the military. And I’m omitting things.

      I’ve always found it funny that people oppose entrusting our health to the government because the government is so inept--meanwhile they’re the folks we entrust with our nuclear arsenal, space program, and food safety regulation.

  2. Alex says

    Hi Chris, someone forwarded your cartoon to me today, and I found your blog, which I am enjoying very much. I am a Brit, and I find the US healthcare system just astonishing. I can’t imagine how it would feel to have to think twice about seeing a doctor or going to hospital because of the cost. We just go -- and no, our system isn’t perfect (which one is?), but people certainly do not die waiting for treatment!

    I find it really jarring when there are plotlines in US shows that involve healthcare or hospital -- all that paperwork, and expense! How do people possibly afford it?

    I frankly think it is barbaric, not to mention extremely anti-democratic. Education and healthcare that is free at the point of use should be the foundation of all truly civilised and democratic countries. Sadly our recent governments have taken away free higher education, and the current lot are privatising the NHS and sending it towards the US healthcare model. This is what happens when governments are made up of a cabal of millionaires with vested interests in private healthcare companies.

    • says

      Thanks for taking the time to reply, Alex. Agreed, our system here is about as bad as one can get and still be called “a system.” Seems to me we in the US are hampered quite a lot by nationalist pride that makes it impossible to admit others may have better ideas than us sometimes. Rather than embracing another idea, we keep grafting “improvements” onto our own and end up with some bloated inefficient beast. A lot like our automotive industry, actually.

      I’ve been made aware of what’s happening in the UK since the comic, and it’s truly tragic. The influence of money on politics, and the loss of any regard for human life among the capitalists in their quest for dollars. To exploit sickness for profit is disgusting--and ineffective. As is oft pointed out, we eradicated polio because Salk opted to give his vaccine away rather than patent and profit from it.

      Personally I regard myself as a capitalist, and a supporter of capitalism, but I think it requires a level of empathy and conscience that seems to be absent in the modern wealthy class. I sense people have been taught that empathy is weakness, by those who sold their own conscience for profit years ago.

      OR perhaps this is the consequence of the diminishing influence of religion in the Western world. I myself am an atheist and for a long time believed no good ever came from religion--but seeing the modern Right Wing, I wonder if religion wasn’t a necessary evil that motivated sociopaths to behave with morality?

  3. Zach says

    This is a thoughtful and incisive piece, but I have to point out a key flaw: at the beginning of the show, Walt isn’t nearly as worried about his own health as he is about the future quality of life of his wife, son and baby daughter. Insurance plays a much larger role in Hank’s health woes than Walt’s.

    • says

      Thanks Zach. In general I’ve been avoiding arguments about Walt’s character, because I think it’s art, and art is very much in the eye of the observer. I also think the show intentionally left this point somewhat vague, intentionally, because that leaves room for speculation about just who Walt is, deep down.

  4. Julia says

    Honestly I was a bit confused by your cartoon -as a medical assistant who has worked with many terminal patients and watched them -some of whom are veterans- be unable to get all the treatment they need or their families left behind with mountains of bills. Please explain to me how to help these people get the government to cover all of their medical expenses. I’m sure they would love to know and I would sure love to be the bearer of that information.

  5. says

    Hi Chris, tnx for a great cartoon that really sums up two major failures. Regrettably some European countries seem to have a blind wish to follow the US down these insane paths (the same countries that follow the US into insane wars). Most however van do the maths and are sticking to universal healthcare and a path of decriminalising most drugs. These is a serious US group advocating this as well: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (leap.cc). These people know what they’re talking about when they say the war on drugs has failed since they’ve been asked to fight it for 40 years.

    Keep on making great stuff!

    • says

      Thanks, Arjen--and by the way, I ADORE L.E.A.P.! It was a presentation by Howard Wooldridge at an ACLU meeting that persuaded me full legalization, regulation, and taxation was the proper solution to American drug policy. I find their argument incredibly compelling, and I spread their message any time I’m talking about the War on Drugs.

  6. Bush Jnr says

    Well said. Of course people with vested interests (or those who blindly support their political parties) will point out to the drawbacks of systems in other countries and say that’s the reason it won’t work.

    There’s good and bad to every system. But the good overweighs the bad by far in a system where everybody has the opportunity to access good medical care.

    You know what irks me most about “anti-socialist” Americans in general? If the poor take undue advantage of a system -- they’re “gaming” it, but if the rich take advantage of a system (I’m looking at you, bankers) -- they’re just taking advantage of a loophole, which is legal.

    The cognitive dissonance displayed in the above scenarios boggles my mind.

    • says

      It’s just another of the many logical fallacies on which debate on American policy revolves: The idea that if an alternative system has any flaw, then it’s not an improvement on our present system. Drives me CRAZY.

    • says

      That’s always been the most amusing part of the debate for me. Bring up health care reform in either country--Americans say they don’t want a system like Canada has, while Canadians say they don’t want a system like the US has. (Personally, having lived on both sides of the border, I prefer the Canadian one.)

      • says

        Americans don’t understand what Canadians have. Do you know how many times I’ve been told, in the last few weeks, about the massive number of Canadians who die while waiting MONTHS for basic medical care? That’s what Americans think Canadian health care is, because we seem to be both the best country at producing and distributing disinformation, and the worst at filtering through it and finding truth.

        Canadians, meanwhile, mostly seem to know the facts about both systems. Which is probably why they have the system they do.

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