Under the Radar 3
Is Making a Bet on How Long
You Will Live Ethical?
This is the third of
a series of columns inspired by the
East Village Other, written by former EVO columnist
Alex Gross and aimed at recapturing
the spirit of that
unique newspaper. These columns are equally
inspired by the exhibit about this newspaper sponsored
by four NYU divisions: the NYU Arthur L. Carter
Journalism Institute, the Fales Library and
Collections of NYU Elmer A. Bobst Library, the
Program on Museum Studies, and the NYTimes.com
Local East Village. This exhibit celebrates EVO's
past and is most welcome. But EVO's
left a gap in the journalism of the present, and
stories that EVO would almost surely
have in fact been left unreported. The columns
that follow attempt
to fill that gap. To see other
columns in this
series, click here.
Many Americans like to imagine they are strict
moralists. Even those who believe they have broken their ties with
puritanism love to hear themselves denounce immorality in others
whenever they get the chance. O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony for instance.
There are even entire cults of immorality-bashers,
citizens who sure as hell recognize immorality when they see it,
you'll hear them screaming that it must be abolished at all costs,
even if this means murder.
All the members of that vast throng, for example,
who have decided once and for all that abortion is totally and
irrevocably unethical, that no fetus should ever be terminated at any
stage for any reason, regardless of the youth, health, or future life
of the mother.
All of these people are at their most gleeful when
they can tell you with absolute certainty what is right and what is
wrong and shout it in your face. Yet somehow a truly weighty moral
issue has eluded them.
Given how ethics-obsessed we Americans can be, it's
nothing less than a miracle that so far no one has ever weighed in on
one of the most outrageous and enduring lapses of ethics and morality
in our society, all-pervasive and surrounding us on all sides.
Instead it's quite the opposite: you'll find ads
promoting this outrage on TV, in print, and even online. And you'll
encounter its practitioners constantly praising its benefits at
social, business, and even religious functions.
I'm talking about insurance. How can it be
permissible or even possible for a relatively small group of our
citizens to gain their livelihood from placing bets on how long the
rest of us are likely to live? Or how healthy we may turn out to be
while we keep on living? Or how many accidents we are likely to have
along the way in our homes, our cars, or the normal conduct of our lives?
Isn't it immediately obvious to anyone that this
can only be a remarkably immoral and unethical profession? And if
not, why is this not the case?
As I write, the Supreme Court is approaching a
decision on whether recently enacted health care legislation is
constitutional. Regardless of their decision, the deep and bitter
opposition against this program may well ultimately force this major
source of immorality into the light of day.
Basically the insurance industry does not want the
US government to issue and handle the financing of insurance policies
at anything approaching reasonable rates. These are policies the
insurance world had hoped to handle on its own terms and at its own rates.
For that reason alone the US government must be
stopped in its tracks from issuing any further policies. But the
opposition of these companies goes even beyond thisthey do not
want to see any further expansion of government-sponsored insurance
for an even more powerful reason.
They fear it might actually lead to public
questioning of how insurance companies have come into being in the
first place and how they have expanded their activities over the
centuries into vast areas of questionable morality and ethics.
The prolonged and haphazard history of insurance
has much to tell us. Insurance evolved in many ancient societies
first and foremost as a means of protecting ship-owners from the loss
of their vessels at sea. For millennia it remained restricted to
shipping until the Great Fire of London of 1666, when insurance
suddenly expanded to cover fire damage as well.
A generation later the first life insurance company
burst into existence in 1706, and from then until modern times
insurance has expanded to cover virtually everything, including pets,
travel, pollution, and even policies against kidnap and ransom.
Some religious groups have often raised objections
to insurance in the past, including Anabaptists, Orthodox Jews, and
Muslims opposed to what they term usury. But the criticisms raised
here are not inspired by any religious impetus, they are entirely
based on secular grounds of moral and ethical standards.
There is of course one group of professionals that
is often singled out for blame and/or derision for the shortcomings
of insurance. These people are called actuaries, and you'll find a
web document listing 186 jokes about them. Two fairly mild examples:
2. An actuary is someone who wanted to be an
accountant but didn't have the personality for it.
37. Straight man: "Look at those white horses
Actuary: "They're white on this side, anyway."
But these are relatively gentle. In these
jokesand apparently in the public anger excited by this
professionyou will find actuaries blamed for being utterly
incompetent, totally heartless, incapable of speaking in plain
language, sexually deficient, unable to sit down for a drink with
normal people, outrageously overpaid, and unfairly accorded the
privilege of working at home while everyone else must commute. And
this is also how they have often been depicted or described in books,
plays, films, TV shows, manga, and video games.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone whose
insurance premiums have just been doubled, and the reason for this
anger becomes clear. But actuaries are truly not the guilty parties
in this cartoon-like story, they are merely paid consultants called
in by the leaders of the insurance industry to perform a job few
others can handle.
What's more, many actuaries do not work for
insurance companies at all but despite resentment from the industry
are actually commissioned to do work for national and state governments.
Like computer hackers these specialists possess
skills others cannot duplicate, combining mathematics with insights
into social complexity, and they also possess some of the social
failings observed in both groups, resulting from related hereditary
conditions like Asperger's Syndrome.
Actuaries belong to two major US societies but also
many minor ones catering to distinct populations. There are Black
actuaries, Hispanic actuaries, women actuaries, and members of the
profession working in specific states or specialties or in foreign
countries. The social conditions they analyze can vary according to
all these factors, and so can the minutiae of insurance policies.
But the ultimate responsibilityand/or
blamefor the insurance profession lies not with actuaries but
with the leaders and market managers of our many well-known insurance
companies. These managers have the final say on what rates are
charged for policies, and they have been known to add their own
safety margins to figures provided by actuaries or ignore them
completely. So if we are looking for villains in the insurance
industry, perhaps it is here that we may find them.
At this point the strands of this article begin to
merge. The true reason for the attacks on Obama's health initiatives
has little to do with their supposed legality and everything to do
with whether all health insurance policies will be written in the
future by the government or by insurance companies. If the doors of
government insurance are further opened, it could well lead to doubts
being raised about the purpose of private insurance. But if the
insurance industry succeeds in their campaign to destroy Obama's
program, it could ironically also lead to the same conclusion.
If insurance rates could in fact be lowered by
placing all policies in the hands of the government, then what is the
point of having private insurance companies, whose history is in any
case a make-shift, almost accidental affair? Is there truly any need
for insurance company policies to make a profit, other than the greed
of their officers and stock holders?
But if it should turn out that even in the hands of
government some form of profit might still be found, should not
any such profit be turned back into public programs benefiting the
entire population? It could well turn out that the insurance industry
has long been stretching to the absolute limit the already perilously
thin claim that private enterprise can do absolutely anything better
than the government.
I'm harboring no illusions about the problems or
the time-line these questions entail. Any attempt to divest the
insurance industry of its present structure in favor of the
government will be dismissed as rank socialism or worse, though my
sole motivation is in fact a more ethical and equitable method
to protect our life, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness.
The struggle to bring about any such changes would
be long and hard-fought, the haggling over the details of the entire
insurance industry being purchased by the government could go on for
decades, but in the end an equitable agreement could be reached, and
the lives of Americans would finally be in our own hands and no
longer subject to the whims of managers in Hartford or Omaha.
Once again, I certainly do not expect rapid progress on these
proposals, but I would nonetheless not be surprised if they were one
day likely to become the law of the land.
Alex Gross has written of his experiences with
the underground press in the US, UK, Germany, and the Netherlands in
his book THE UNTOLD SIXTIES: When Hope Was Born. His
website for this book:
His main website: