Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul in a Steel Cage Death Match

A fracas broke out in the US Senate at Tom Price’s January 18 hearing to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.  Consistent with Senate decorum, it was an understated fracas.  Gone are the days when Congressman Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

This is just as well, as there was every indication that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) would have glady laid into each other with whatever weapons were handy.  Their point of contention:  American compassion.  Sanders asked Price, currently a Republican Congressman from Georgia and a medical doctor by training, whether citizens have a right to health care whether they can afford it or not.  Sanders pointed out that the US is “the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care to all people as a right.”

While he was dodging Senator Sanders’ question, Price said that America is a “compassionate society.”  “No,” Sanders interrupted, “we’re not a compassionate society.  In terms of our relationship to poor and working people our record is worse than virtually any other country on earth.”

Sanders was followed by self-styled libertarian Senator Rand Paul.  Senator Paul was greatly affronted at Senator Sanders’ accusation that America is not compassionate.  Prompted by Senator Paul, Price said that during his days working in a hospital and later when he was in private practice, everyone who turned up was treated even if they could not pay.  What Paul and Price neglected to mention is that you’ll still get a bill and God help you if you can’t pay.  If you have assets—say, a house, you may have to kiss your house goodbye.

Neither Price nor Paul once uttered the dread word “bankruptcy.”  Nor did they hint that medical costs are a leading cause of personal bankruptcies in the US.

Price told Sanders that he would “make certain that every single American has access to the highest quality care and coverage that is possible.”  Sanders retorted that “‘accesss to’ does not mean that they have the money to do so.  I have ‘access to’ buying a $10 million home; I don’t have the money to do that.”

Price’s remark took me back to 2007.  In a speech in Cleveland, President George W. Bush blithely assured Americans that everyone has “access to health care in America.  After all, you just go to an emergency room.”  Yes, and mightily glad they will be to see you, too, what with ERs understaffed, underfunded, and ER doctors and nurses overworked to the point of collapse.[1]

Right and Left have a fundamentally different take on how to provide low-income people with food, shelter, and health care.  For conservatives, providing for the needy is a matter of individual virtue.  Coerced giving (which conservatives say happens when the government cares for the needy out of your tax dollars whether you want the government to or not) is not virtuous.  In 1960, in the book which helped launch the post-World War Two conservative movement, The Conscience of a Conservative, Senator Barry Goldwater wrote:  “Let us, then, not blunt the noble impulses of mankind by reducing charity to a mechanical operation of the federal government.”

Senator Goldwater went on to lose the 1964 Presidential election in a landslide.  Returned to office in his own right, President Lyndon Johnson went on to enact Medicare and Medicaid.  These twin programs have been reducing charity to a mechanical operation of the federal government ever since—and have enabled countless Americans to lead decent lives.  Now Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, food stamps, and Obamacare are all under attack by the Republican Congress.

For conservatives, charity is a matter of racking up cosmic brownie points with God or the universe.  That is, if conservatives are sincere when they praise private charity, an assumption which may be, shall we say, overly charitable.  (How much does Donald Trump give to charity?  Could one reason for Trump’s reticence in releasing his tax returns be that he does not want Americans to see how little he gives?)

During the Price hearing, Senator Paul said that in 2014 Americans gave $400 billion to charity.  Senator Paul did not mention that not all of that goes for health care.  The charity monitor “Giving USA” breaks Americans’ charitable giving down into nine categories.  Religion was in the lead in 2014 with 32% of all charitable donations.  (By the way, Senator Paul, Giving USA estimates that Americans gave $358.38 billion to charity in 2014, not $400 billion.  You’re welcome.)  Religious institutions do a lot of good work with the poor.  However, a priest I know told me that most charitable dollars donated to churches go towards paying clergy and upkeep on the church building, not towards caring for the needy.

“Human Services” (food banks, homeless shelters, low-income legal assistance, etc.) are in third place, with 11.7% of all giving (my calculation from the Giving USA data).  “Health” is in fourth place, with a mere 8.5% (again, my calculation)—oh, and this category covers medical research and health education, not just health care.  For Senator Paul to parade the figure $400 billion in the context of a discussion about providing for Americans’ health care needs is misleading.

The big problem with private charity as a substitute for government assistance is that private charity cannot come anywhere close to meeting the needs of Americans in want.  It never has and it never will.  That’s why government stepped in.

The Left has a very different attitude towards charity.  By all means, write that check to the local food bank, but we need to go beyond charity.  George Orwell writes:

The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys.  What are we aiming at, if not a society in which ‘charity’ would be unnecessary?  We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable.[2]

Oscar Wilde agrees.  In “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891), Wilde dismisses charity as the solution to the “problem of poverty.”  Instead, we should “try to reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”  When we no longer have to scrabble for our daily bread, each individual can “develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him.”

In 2014, Tom Price had an estimated net worth of $13.6 million.  That makes him practically a pauper in President Donald Trump’s billionaire-heavy Cabinet.  It wont be long before the other Department heads tire of Price’s hitting them up for bus fare after Cabinet meetings.

Price has never failed to look after his own financial interests.  On December 22 of last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Representative Price had made $300,000 worth of purchases in the stock of 40 health care-related companies since 2012.  During this period, Price had sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills which had the potential to affect the value of his investment portfolio.

In August 2016, Price bought about $100,000 worth of discounted shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics, Inc., an Australian drug manufacturer.  Price told the Senate on January 18 that he made the investment after a conversation with his fellow Republican, Representative Chris Collins of New York.  Collins and his family own about 20% of Innate.  Collins serves on Innate’s Board of Directors.  The investment has worked out well for Price, the value of his shares climbing some 400% since they were purchased.

Price’s trades may or may not have been illegal, but they give off a fishy scent.

Stay well.


[1]  To be fair, Bush added that while all Americans have access to health care, paying for health care remained a problem.  Bush’s proposed solution was that private health insurance policies should be made affordable for all Americans.  How?  Bush didn’t say.  The Affordable Care Act was an attempt at making private coverage affordable for everyone, but has left millions of Americans uncovered.  There’s probably nothing this side of Single Payer that can guarantee health coverage for all Americans.  Single Payer is anathema to US corporate elites because it is advocated by Socialists and (even worse) Canadians.

[2]  George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?” in ALL ART IS PROPAGANDA:  CRITICAL ESSAYS (George Packer, ed., 2008), p. 208.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at