It’s evening in America

– It’s the same story I keep telling here – but this time from Canada.

– From Margaret Wente, in the Canadian Globe and Mail

– dennis

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Toronto and Chicago are the two cities I know best, and I love them both. But Chicago is superior in almost every way. It’s an architectural marvel, public transit is terrific, and taxis and museums are abundant and cheap. On a bright summer day, when the skyscrapers glitter against the dazzling blue Midwestern sky, there’s no finer place to be.

Chicago’s hospitals are terrific, too. That’s where I spent much of the past week, visiting a family member who’s ill. The city’s hospitals make our hospitals look like slums. They’re gleaming, spotless and staffed with friendly, smiling people who treat patients like hotel guests. There are only two patients to a room, and if you ask for something, you can get it right away. Their hospitals seem to have twice as many nurses as ours do, and three times more computers.

Of course, all these nice things don’t come cheap. The hospital where my family member stayed charges $1,525 a day, and that’s just for the room. Every pill and blood test costs extra. Her hospital stay probably will wind up costing twice as much as it would in Canada, with approximately the same outcome. Fortunately, she has health insurance.

The medical-industrial complex is the biggest and fastest growing business in America. In fact, it’s about the only business in America that’s growing. In some parts of the country, health care is the No. 1 employer. Chicago is strewn with well-staffed hospital campuses that offer the latest treatments and technologies, at a price that American society can no longer afford.

But Chicago, for all its appearance of prosperity, is in the middle of a train wreck. Since the financial meltdown, house prices have plunged 35 per cent. The state of Illinois is all but broke. One former governor is in jail, and another one is heading there. This week, the bizarrely coiffed Rod Blagojevich (whose hair alone should be illegal) was found guilty on numerous corruption counts, including trying to peddle Barack Obama’s former Senate seat. No one was surprised at the verdict except him. As one insider was quoted as saying, “You could cut off his head, and he wouldn’t be any dumber.”

In defending himself, Mr. Blagojevich seemed to suggest he was no more corrupt than any other politician. With that, Chicagoans heartily agree. Most other Americans would, too. There’s a widespread feeling among ordinary people that their leaders have betrayed them. And they’re right. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans are playing chicken over the deadline to raise the debt ceiling, and neither side has a serious plan to fix the problem.

The failure of leadership extends far beyond the political elites. It includes the entire health-industrial complex, where the rewards for high-tech medicine and “breakthroughs” are extremely high. Medical corruption, influence-peddling and the inflation of research results are serious problems, although they rarely make front-page news. This week, for example, a group of doctors issued a bombshell report accusing some of the country’s leading surgeons of fudging the results of clinical trials involving a new product widely used in spinal surgery. The surgeons, the group said, overstated the benefits and failed to report serious complications, including male sterility and cancer.

The product, called Infuse Bone Graft, brings in around $700-million in annual sales for its maker, Medtronic, Inc. (Fifteen of the surgeons, incidentally, collectively received at least $62-million from Medtronic for unrelated work.) It’s extremely rare for a group of doctors to repudiate their colleagues’ research. As the whistleblowers wrote, “it harms patients to have unaccountable special interests permeate medical research.” Yet, the health industry is made up of special interests, all fighting to rig the system to their advantage. And no wonder. The stakes are enormous: Americans spend $2.5-trillion a year on health care.

I used to feel exhilarated by my home country’s dynamism and ingenuity. These days, I mainly feel depressed. Despite its phenomenal talent and brainpower, the U.S. shows no sign of being able to solve its most basic problems. And one of those problems is that people don’t get rich from making things any more. Instead, they get rich from transactions (lawyers) or manipulating financial products (investment bankers), or from the Internet casino. The other problem is that any country that squanders so much money on health care can’t possibly compete with China or Brazil. As Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, put it, America’s out-of-control health spending is “like a tapeworm eating at our economic body.”

These days, I always re-enter Canada with a feeling of relief. Our architecture may be second-rate, and our hospitals are shabby. We have a health-care problem, too. But it seems to me our problems can be solved, and theirs can’t. Chicago is a great place to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

– to the original…


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