HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Scrooge, a Tea Party Revision

Let’s update the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. We know him as the money-lender who ignored the squalor of 19th-century London, including the squalor of the Cratchits. Indeed, Scrooge, who paid abysmal wages (no unions, no “living wages” in this laissez-faire land), was responsible for the family’s squalor. As for government, 19th-century England exalted social Darwinism: it did not squander dollars raising up the poor. That was left to private charity – which Scrooge spurned. But the tale ends happily. Thanks to deus-ex-machina visits from the three ghosts of Christmas, Scrooge is reborn, “like a baby.” Suddenly he aches for the Cratchits, especially Tiny Tim, the disabled urchin who will surely die without Scrooge’s beneficence. Scrooge vows to help the Cratchits. More crucially, Scrooge vows to help the rest of the downtrodden. At last this misanthrope recognizes an obligation to the rest of humanity. Audiences cheer.

How retro! The tale needs a rewrite, according to Tea Party principles. How about a new ending: Scrooge recognizes the misery of Tiny Tim, while using it as a public relations gambit. He saves the family, but only the family. At the same time, he saves his bottom-line fortune. The miracle is the hypocrisy: the hoopla surrounding this one act of charity (again, which costs him little) spares him from opening his coffers to help anybody else. The benefactor remains a misanthrope.

Congressional conservatives have given us a blueprint for this revisionist Scrooge in the Gabrielle Miller Kids First Pediatric Research bill.

Briefly, for the past few years the conservative Congressional block has tramped down spending for scientific research, with the National Institutes of Health a prime target. The Republican majority has pushed to cut $1.6 billion dollars from the NIH budget. The zeal to cut may reflect conservatives’ loathing of government, their distrust of science, their enthusiasm for private-sector research, or their allegiance to lowering taxpayers’ burden, even if lowering that burden retards medical progress. The rationale doesn’t matter – it is like probing the reasons for Scrooge’s miserliness. But the conservatives pushing to axe the National Institutes of Health’s budget have emerged as cruel – not a great public relations image. In addition, the conservative-inspired government shutdown led to a halt in clinical trials – another public relations debacle.

How much better if a child, à la Tiny Tim, can soften their hearts – proving that these budget-cutters care. Fast forward to Gabrielle Miller, a Virginia child who died after suffering for a year with brain cancer. She had created a foundation, Smashing Walnuts (her tumor was the size of a walnut) to raise money for pediatric research ( This story touches everybody – politicians as well as constituents.

The solution is brilliant: a bill (HR 2019), named after Gabrielle Miller, that will earmark $12,6 million annually, over ten years, for pediatric cancer research. Newspapers praise House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who championed the bill. The House passed the bill 295 to 103; the Senate passed it unanimously. This was truly a bipartisan Act. Only a modern-day Scrooge would object.How humanitarian!

Even more brilliant: the bill will not burden taxpayers. The not-so-fine print specifies the funds behind this initiative: Congress will divert funds earmarked for political conventions. These are discretionary expenditures. In funding the initiative for pediatric cancer research, the right-wing solons are not cutting any major endeavor. Nor are they raising the overall NIH budget. The politicians can continue to cut government spending. (Of course, taking away public funding for political conventions opens the door to the corporate sector assuming full sponsorship, but that dovetails with Tea Partiers’ enthusiasm for private sector influence.)

In the public relations love-fest surrounding this bill, where sponsors emerge as both kind-hearted and munificent, the small-print details gets lost: the National Institutes of Health has gained some money for pediatric cancer research, but has, overall, lost money – indeed, has lost money for the basic research essential for progress.

It is as though Scrooge saved Tiny Tim, while ignoring everybody else in misery. With this bill, the ever-so-crafty solons have remade their image as humanitarians, without changing their anti-government, anti-science mindset. This is hypocrisy raised to a level even Scrooge would not recognize.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014

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