A group of medical students (myself included!) rally to support Single Payer - one of the most important campaigns health professionals can participate in to combat income inequality.

A group of medical students (myself included!) rally to support Single Payer – one of the most important campaigns health professionals can participate in to combat income inequality.

The publication of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty First Century has really shook the economics community, and along with Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality For All has thrust the debate about income inequality into the spotlight. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s hard to ignore all of the publicity it’s been getting from highly influential people. Bill Moyer’s interview with Paul Krugman as he discusses the book and its importance is well worth a watch. As I understand it, the thesis of the book can be summed up in the Intro (available to preview for free on Amazon!),

When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. There are nevertheless ways democracy can regain control over capitalism and ensure that the general interest takes precedence over private interests, while preserving economic openness and avoiding protectionist and nationalist reactions.

 

I don’t think this book could have come at a more important time. With the following egregious facts coming to light (CEOs now making 354 times the amount of the average worker), nicely summed up by John Case’s article for People’s World:

The wealth of the 1 percent, and even more the .1 percent, is increasing at 2-3 times the overall growth rate of the economy (GDP). The median income worker, on the other hand, received virtually no gains from increased productivity. And workers who fall below median income have seen their share of national wealth and income dramatically cut.

It seems that Americans are more open to realizing that the super-rich didn’t necessarily do anything of value to earn that money, and that it is harmful for everyone for wealth (and increasingly, political power) to be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer.

As a member of the Millennial generation, I grew up being told I could be anything I wanted to be. Inherent in that statement is the idea of upward mobility. The idea that working hard is a surefire way to success in America. Yet, increasingly, this is a myth, and reviews of this book indicate this is something that Piketty addresses. In a review by Christopher Matthews for CNNMoney, he writes,

[Joseph] Stiglitz was equally taken by the work, arguing that Americans would not be bothered by increased inequality if it were based on merit within a society that enables class mobility. But the U.S. is near the bottom when it comes to social mobility [emphasis added].

 

Now we see a student debt crisis and the related social and economic effects of this on our generation, yet we are blamed for being lazy and entitled when we can’t find meaningful work that allows us to support ourselves as well as generate new ideas and technology.

Why should physicians care?

  • Medical students are a privileged few who have managed with a hearty dose of luck and generous social support to forge the beginnings of meaningful careers, but we face financial and occupational insecurity never before faced by the profession.  According to the AMA,

AAMC data show that median private medical school tuition and fees increased by 50 percent (in real dollars) in the 20 years between 1984 and 2004. Median public medical school tuition and fees increased by 133 percent over the same time period. 

 

  • Accelerating consolidation of hospitals and insurance corporations, leading to huge behemoths of systems with unprecedented power and exploding costs. The ACA has been a driver of this trend, and this is a HUGE topic that’s worthy of much closer examination that I only superficially address here. Yet there is no doubt this relates to concentrations of influence.
  • Concurrently, physicians are changing from an employing to an employed class. This is also related to many other factors, such as the fact that employed physicians typically have more predictable work hours, a guaranteed salary, and maybe a better work-life balance. But, because they are employees, they have a boss that they are accountable to, who may or may not possess an MD and understand the challenges of the profession. Will this mean that doctors’ voices will be less influential in healthcare in the future? In a 2014 Medscape survey asking what doctors dislike about being employees, 45% of employed doctors reported limited influence in decision-making, and 30% reported “being ‘bossed around’ by management. If this doesn’t sound like the classic worker-boss struggle… Yet as a “profession” instead of a “trade,” doctors generally do not participate in typical collective bargaining efforts like strikes (and many, including myself, have ethical concerns with doctors striking).

To me, the direction this is pointing is that physicians no longer have the power and influence they once did, and they will likely continue to experience declines. I don’t think this is entirely a horrible thing in itself; like all groups, physician self-interest has not always aligned with what’s best for the public (ie., the AMA was one of the biggest opponents of Medicare for all back in the day, and its official position does not support single payer still.)

This change in status will force physicians to pay attention to the concerns of the working class – because physicians now belong to it. 

Our organizing strategies will have to reflect this emerging reality. The good news is that tons of groundwork of labor movements has already been laid. Once physicians join the voices of other allied health professionals and working people, all of our voices will be much stronger. This means physicians must publicly support the struggles of much lower-income workers in living wage campaigns (as these health professional students did, this physician did, and this group of physicians did), attempts at better working conditions, and yes, single payer healthcare.

  • Finally, and probably most importantly, physicians should care about income inequality because it drastically affects the health of our patients. Check out these graphs charting life expectancy by income.

If true democracy is the key to solving the problem of income inequality, physicians can play an integral role. Now, more than ever, we’re in this together.

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