On a typical day, exposed to literally hundreds of items about medicine and politics -- news stories, journal articles, white papers, government reports, broadcast media transcripts, Internet discussions, and blog entries -- I am increasingly frustrated that 90% of them advocate turning over all of America's health care sector, which represents about one-sixth of the entire economy, to the government. As everyone knows by now, this statist, collectivist, and unrealistic Utopian prescription, described as "universal health care," has been considerably reinforced recently by Michael Moore's documentary film, Sicko.
The movie opened nationally on June 29 and since then, the phenomenon, or hype, of Sicko has continued to grow, possibly heralding a critical mass paradigm shift in the long simmering political debate about national health care which is expected to come to a head in the 2008 elections. By the way, proponents of "universal health care" who often deny that it is socialism are being disingenuous. "Socialism," according to the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, is
"An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity."
That definition perfectly describes the kind of centralized, authoritarian medical system - universal health care or single payer - that millions of Sicko's fans are calling for. Unfortunately, it also represents much of the status quo of American medicine that's already in place, in advance of any future total takeover by the government. Since the mid-1960s and the onset of Medicare, Medicaid, and a succession of other government entitlement programs, American medicine has been substantially influenced (to its detriment) and increasingly controlled by the government. And judging by public opinion polls and the rhetoric that surrounds us, health care is now recognized as "a right" - a belief or article of faith guided by or reflecting that other classic socialist tenet, "cooperation rather than competition." It's hard not to think back wistfully to the America of a decade and a half ago, when the last attempt to pass socialized medicine - the infamous Hillarycare scheme of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and the administration of her husband, President Bill Clinton - went down to defeat. In 1993-'94, when that battle was raging, the opposing forces seemed well matched, and ultimately socialism lost.
So what's happened since then-leading to the situation today where it's become politically incorrect to the point of ignominy to oppose universal government-run health care?
Thoughtful observers will recognize that many factors are involved in the shift. The population has continued to be dumbed-down by the government-run education system, the mainstream media, and the popular culture, making more citizens susceptible to the propaganda of crafty left wing ideologues like Moore and self-serving politicians who recognize that promising "free" health care to the masses will win them votes. The entitlement mindset is more entrenched everywhere and now reaches deeply into the middle class. (In Massachusetts, where a state-run mandatory universal health insurance plan is now the law, the government will pay for residents' insurance if they make up to 300% of the Federal poverty income level. Meanwhile, the average family in Massachusetts spends over $2,000 a year on state lottery tickets - but don't expect them to put that money and what they spend on other equally frivolous discretionary items into paying for their own health care - no way - not when the government is there to provide it.) In the 1993-'94 attempt by the Clintons and the Democrats to pass universal health care, the arrogance and condescension of President Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton turned off a lot of people, and set the stage for their party losing control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in almost half a century. Today, for some reason (historical amnesia is another unfortunate modern American trait), the Clintons' reputations have been miraculously restored, in Bill Clinton's case to "rock star" status, while the popularity of President George W. Bush and the Republican Party-less inclined as they are to support totally government-run health care-is at a very low point. As I reported on July 11, the performance of Sicko at U.S. theater box offices has been significantly less than expected. The data in this chart of daily box office receipts show a steady decline since the film peaked the day after it opened. After 2 ½ weeks and three weekends in theaters, Sicko has grossed less than $16 million. At the end of its third weekend in 2004, Moore's previous film, Fahrenheit 9/11, had grossed over $61 million. San Diego Union-Tribune editorial writer Chris Reed observed on July 12,
"There is nothing in the actual box-office numbers to suggest 'Sicko' will do even close to half the $119 million in North American box office achieved by Moore's last film. Instead, it looks to me to be in the 'Truth or Dare' range. The 1991 Madonna documentary grossed $15.1 million. Adjusted for the much-higher price of movie tickets in 2007, that's equal to a box office of about $30 million."
A curious phenomenon is emerging. The reality of Sicko's disappointing box office figures notwithstanding, supporters of government-run universal health care, who latched on to the movie long before it was even released, seem undeterred in their increasingly messianic mission. It's as if - six decades after the campaign for socialized medicine began during the post-World War II administration of President Harry S. Truman - they can finally see their goal coming into view. Nothing, not least the disappointing box office receipts of a movie, is going to stop them. Among the hundreds - if not thousands - of Sicko box office truth deniers is Paul Krugman, professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University and New York Times columnist. On July 9, in a typically histrionic column "Health Care Terror," Krugman wrote,
"For more than 60 years, the medical-industrial complex and its political allies have used scare tactics to prevent America from following its conscience and making access to health care a right for all its citizens. I say conscience, because the health care issue is, most of all, about morality.
"That's what we learn from the overwhelming response to Michael Moore's 'Sicko.'"
Overwhelming response? Krugman must believe the hype and his own wishful thinking. He concluded,
"So this is a test. The only things standing in the way of universal health care are the fear-mongering and influence-buying of interest groups. If we can't overcome those forces here, there's not much hope for America's future."
But maybe Krugman is onto something. In "Sicko Spurs Audiences Into Action" (July 1 at Cinema Blend), John Tyler could barely contain his enthusiasm after seeing the film for the second time in a mall in Texas where he expected to, and did, encounter "just folks" and "rednecks." Despite the Red State audience demographic ("It's probably the only spot left in America where you stand a good chance of getting the crap kicked out of you for badmouthing the president"), Tyler witnessed the audience "shaken. . . to the core" by Moore's film: "In all my thirty years on this earth, I have never ever seen any movie have this kind of unifying effect on people. It was like I was standing there, at the birth of a new political movement. Even after 9/11, there was never a reaction like this, at least not in Texas. If Sicko truly has this sort of power, then Michael Moore has done something beyond amazing. If it can change people, affect people like this in the conservative hotbed of Texas, then Sicko isn't just a great movie, seeing it may be one of the most important things you do all year." Moving to the international stage in something called World Health Care Blog (reformers like to think big, after all), Gary Schwitzer on July 10 asked himself the question "What has Michael Moore given us?" Joining the hagiographic chorus, Schwitzer wrote that Moore "has spawned a discussion of U.S. health care policy issues better than most individual journalists or collective news organizations have done." And despite being (here Schwitzer quoted New York Times reviewer Philip Boffey) "unashamedly one-sided, superficial, overstated and occasionally suspect in its details," Schwitzer agreed with Boffey that "on the big picture...Moore is right." Independent health care analyst David Catron blogs here and here. Recently, Catron and I have been comparing notes and URLs. In a post on July 12 titled "Cognitive Dissonance and the SiCKO Cult of Socialized Medicine," Catron observed, "Hundreds of reviewers, representing every political persuasion, agree that SiCKO presents a simplistic and distorted picture of American health care. . . Despite all of this, SiCKO's basic premise-that our current health care system should be replaced with socialized medicine-has apparently not lost a single devotee. In fact, the advocates of government-run health care have increasingly exhibited a species of cognitive dissonance. Emulating the members of that famous UFO cult described by Leon Festinger, the evangelists of socialized medicine have responded to the adipose auteur's [Moore's] crumbling credibility by clinging ever more tightly to their preposterous beliefs." Incredibly, in a case of life imitating blog, Catron's original and unique juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate subjects, universal health care and UFOs, found actualization later the very same day in a two-hour programming block on CNN. Between 8-10 pm EDT on Friday July 12, Larry King Live, expanded to two hours, covered two subjects: "America's Health Care: Is There A Crisis?" and "Are UFOs Real?"
In the first hour, it was quickly determined by King and his panel, dominated by pro-universal health care advocates, that indeed America has a health care crisis and government-run health care is the only solution. The question on UFOs in the second hour was answered somewhat more equivocally, although one guest, former Arizona Governor Fife Symington, a one-time UFO skeptic, went on the record as saying that he "saw a craft. . . not an airplane" over Phoenix ten years ago (during the so-called "Phoenix Lights") and now believes that what he saw "was from another world." King repeatedly mentioned Symington's epiphany as adding credibility to the pro-UFO side of the debate.
Back to Sicko: The movie has yet to open abroad and, after it finishes its theatrical runs, there will be sales of DVDs which should add additional millions to the take. Even if it's not as successful as its predecessors, Sicko will make money - and Moore himself, as the Los Angeles Times reported on June 29, "has an unprecedented deal for the documentary's profits." It might seem ironic, since Moore believes that profit should be eliminated from all of American health care, that:
Interviewed, and photographed, for the article at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, the Times reported that "Moore says his first-class travel, accommodations and car service are not his choice, or even his preference (the latter statement has been disputed by some people who have worked with him)."
"Moore himself stands to make a mint on the film. Thanks to a lucrative contract negotiated with the Weinstein Co. by his talent agent, Endeavor's Ari Emanuel [Congressman Rahm Emmanuel's brother -- ed.], Moore is in line to receive 50% of 'Sicko's' gross profits-arguably one of the most lucrative deals on Hollywood's books, richer even than those enjoyed by the likes of Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and director Peter Jackson. After theater owners have taken their cut, in other words, 'Sicko's' profits will be split in half between Moore and Harvey and Bob Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. is releasing the film nationally.
"And that's not the only place Moore's deal eclipses almost all other movie deals. While most actors and directors get a cut calculated on 20% of a film's DVD revenue, Moore's cut of those earnings is calculated based on all of the DVD proceeds. Of course, since Moore's documentaries take in far less than most big-studio movies, his bigger slice is of a much smaller pie."
Peter Barry Chowka is a widely published investigative journalist and medical-political analyst who specializes in reporting on the politics of health care. His Web site is http://chowka.com/.