Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rick Scott stars as Prince Prospero in Poe's The Masque of the Red Death

This is the 16th Street Bridge, here in Pittsburgh:

The image is from here

This is a close-up of the sculpture on top:

Image from here

It's a fascinating piece of art, although it's hard to appreciate with rush hour going on around you. It's one of hundreds of works of art hiding around our public architecture here. Discovering them is one of the delights of living in this very cool city. You go out, you walk a few miles, you're healthier, and meanwhile you've discovered some nifty piece of artwork, or found some incredibly detailed architectural feature located a hundred feet above the sidewalk, or enjoyed a particular vista for the first time...

Image from here

Big Steel was good to this place, for a long time. If you discount the lung disease.

But finding the sculpture on top of the 16th Street Bridge got me wondering...

what will its replacement look like, someday?  

Can you imagine the reaction of the State Legislature if the City of Pittsburgh tried to build a similar structure today?

"What the hell are these things on top? They're BRONZE? Do you know what they cost? Why are they up there? They CAN'T be structurally necessary. What's the maintenance cost? Do you really expect my constituents to pay for fancy statues on a bridge in Pittsburgh?"

This image is from Wikimedia Commons. Its a picture of Mike Turzai, who is my candidate for the single biggest prick in the PA state legislature since Jane Orie went to jail. He's the guy who admitted that PA's voter ID program would deliver the state to Romney this Fall. He's going to be governor, some day.

Mike Turzai would flip out at the notion of paying for public art on the taxpayer's dime. He wants government just barely large enough to serve the financial interests of the 1%. He's nothing special; his views are those of literally thousands of Tea Bagging politicians all over the country, controlling state legislatures, and Governorships and a big slice of the House Republican Conference in DC.

These people acknowledge absolutely no role for the "public interest". They do not share a common identity with the rest of us, most of the time. Their primary identity is founded on the closely related bases of class and ideology.

So, we won't be seeing cool decorative features on our public architecture any time soon, because the identity they hold and promote is a smaller sub-group than "America", or "Pennsylvania", or "Pittsburgh". (Especially Pittsburgh. These people hate cities like they hate evil. They think cities and evil are synonymous.)

(this and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

But the implications of this particular identity configuration go way beyond public art. These people don't think of themselves as part of "our" community. They believe they have no vested interest in the community's health or well-being. Indeed, they think of our community as being largely parasitical

They truly believe that "their" resources are unfairly taxed to support less productive, less "deserving" members of the community.

This belief (the salient value here is "property") is loaded with assumptions of course. It assumes that everything they have, they "earned". It ignores the extent to which their membership in the community they so disparage has allowed them to "earn" what they have. They ignore the inconvenient fact that they were educated at the community's expense, as were their employees and customers. They ignore the community financed infrastructure of roads, and fire protection, and public health which provides them the basis for "earning" what they have.

And they ignore the provision of public safety and the legal system which allows them to enjoy their property in security. (They would tell you they're protected by their personal firearms, of course.)

Since they erroneously don't believe the community benefits them, they attempt to contribute as little as possible to it. It's classic primate thinking, of course, The short-term tangible benefit of a tax cut this year is a more effective behavioral motivator than the long-term, abstract benefit of a thriving and healthy community, full of well-educated potential employees and prosperous potential customers.

It's also primate thinking with foreseeable consequences. At least, if you're a more sophisticated thinker than a Homo Habilis trying to scare off a rival band from the good watering hole.

Those consequences are on display, right now, in the State of Florida. The current Governor of Florida is Medicare Fraudster and Skeletor impersonator Rick Scott.

(not sure where I heard the Skeletor comparison. Not mine, though)

Rick Scott perfectly embodies the value "property". He ran on a campaign of cutting government, and cutting taxes. He wants fewer resources devoted to the community, and more devoted to whatever individuals have current possession of those resources.

Among the areas Scott has targeted for cuts is the State Department of Health. Public Health and Sanitation didn't used to be a controversial government expense. Liberals and Conservatives alike could agree on the desirability of minimizing epidemic disease. They'd LIVED through some of them, you see?

This was before all the cutbacks to public education, so people had some inkling of the historic consequences of epidemic disease. Epidemic disease has destroyed entire civilizations at various moments in human history. It is *not* something to fuck with.

(image from here)

But again, avoiding an epidemic is an abstract benefit, not always tangible even in the long term. Cutting the state budget, lowering taxes, obtaining the approval and support of your key political constituencies (as opposed to the inattentive and apathetic electorate that put you in office) is a tangible benefit in the immediate term.

And so we come to the most astonishing news out of Florida since the zombie attack. Rick Scott has apparently covered up an outbreak of Tuberculosis in Duval County. 

Scott has implemented massive cuts to various programs in the Department of Public Health, many of them targeting urban communitiesHe also eliminated the State's last tuberculosis hospital. The money saved was then used to cut taxes for corporations. 

It's important to be accurate about the timing on this. A schizophrenic transient contracted the disease in 2008, and went untreated for 8 months. During this time he infected at least 17 other people as he shuffled between shelters, soup kitchens and a mental health facility. 

When the number of outbreaks of TB spiked this year in Duval County, they requested CDC help. CDC discovered at least 3000 contacts for the sick man, only a fraction of whom have been screened for the disease. CDC issued its report in April of this year. 

No one in the legislature which had just passed the public health budget cuts ever saw it. But subsequently, Scott's administration ordered the state's only specialized tuberculosis facility, A.G. Holley state hospital, closed 6 months ahead of the date set forth in the budget.

As the disease has continued to spread, thirteen people have died in Jacksonville. Still, the report became public only in June.  The sponsor of the legislation cutting the State's health funding claims to have been unaware of the report's existence.

There's always push back on budget cuts, of course. Conservatives hate to admit this, but public sector jobs are real jobs. And these are real voters being inconvenienced. Closing down the state's only tuberculosis hospital is a big step.  The state legislature has to be convinced not to revisit the issue, even in light of the worst tuberculosis outbreak of the last 20 years.

So Scott suppressed the news of the TB outbreaks. The Department of Public Health buried the report.  It seems a bit bone-headed, in retrospect...

but this is the essence of conservative public policy in this era.  It has its roots in the inability of political conservatives to identify with the larger community in the current social context of early 21st century America. They don't fund public health for the same reason they don't fund public art. It's not "for them". It'd take a threat to national survival to make these people start thinking of themselves as our countrymen, rather than as "entrepreneurs", or "conservatives", or "job creators".

(image from here)

Whether our conservative citizens get it or not, they are part of the larger community. We're in the same tiny lifeboat. And no matter how rich they get, and how low their taxes are, and how high the gate is in their community...
the health of the community affects their health. There IS no scenario in which their privately funded, zero tax, libertarian, "I got mine, to hell with you" health system treats emerging diseases in the homeless population.
And there's no way in hell those diseases don't eventually hit the 1%. Edgar Alan Poe even wrote a story about it.

(Image from here)
 Update: I thought I was terribly clever using Poe's Masque of the Red Death as a metaphor for Scott's approach to public health. But it turns out Andy K at Crooks and Liars thought of it before I did. Just wanted to acknowledge his priority on this.