Anyone who wants to really think through the implications of the Affordable Health Care Act, which goes into effect October 1, should consider the results of the Vaillant Study of American men. The study, among the most important longitudinal studies in the history of psychology, traced two hundred men who were undergraduates at Harvard in 1938. Obviously the men are now in their nineties or dead. One finding of the study is that 30% of the men lived into their nineties. The percentage of men who live into their nineties in the population as a whole is around 3%. Men who went to Harvard in 1938 were ten times more likely to live into their nineties than their average male contemporary.

What this teaches us is the effect that significant wealth has on longevity. True, these men were probably more educated than the average as well. Education does play a role in effecting longevity in that people who make incautious or uninformed choices, like smoking, are probably going to die at a younger age. Intelligence can be translated into social policies and can change industries like food that have a direct effect on health. Still, what we can guess about these men is that they did not worry about money in taking care of their health needs. They spent whatever it took to prolong their health and well-being.

I had a personal experience that bears this out. I had a doctor who was also the doctor for the executives of a large company. Often, when he did something extra for me, such as giving me a test that was only marginally required, he would say: “this is the treatment that the top executives get.” To be sure, he was selling himself, but I got to know him well enough to know that the health care given to the rich is not the health care given to the ordinary person.

Undoubtedly, Obama-Care is an advance over the current system. But for it to really work, we need progressives who understand the idea that health care is a right, and that the purpose of this reform must be to guarantee that right, and not to reduce health care costs as is so often claimed. Ultimately, there is something vile about people dying earlier because they are spending less money on their own care. Ultimately, too, there is much in health care, as in education, culture, and many other aspects of our life that cannot be measured economically. Only if progressives keep this idea in public view does it have a chance of reaching old age.

Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left: An Historical Argument (Polity, 2012)


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