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 Special

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 passing has

left a gap in the journalism of the present, and many

stories that EVO would almost surely have covered

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 this—they 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 over there."
Actuary: "They're white on this side, anyway."

But these are relatively gentle. In these jokes—and apparently in the public anger excited by this profession—you 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 responsibility—and/or blame—for 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: 

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