A couple of weeks ago I was in Bean Blossom for a bluegrass festival at the park Bill Monroe created over 40 years ago. It's an idyllic spot. The stage is situated in front of a grove of old trees that play havoc with sightlines, but create a Bambi-esque atmosphere in which music and nature seem to merge.
The only discordant note I heard that afternoon was sounded by the announcer, when he introduced a group from Nashville, Tennessee, called The Grascals. The Grascals are sponsored by Exxon Mobil. They have a dandy tour bus with their faces painted on the side along with a Mobil logo. Apparently their performance contract stipulates that when they are introduced, some mention of Mobil is recommended, if not required. Just before The Grascals took the stage, the announcer called out Mobil's name, adding with a folksy twang, "when the oil companies go broke, we all go broke."
When The Grascals finished their set, the announcer made a point of repeating this message, concluding with that line about our going broke if the oil companies go broke. He made it sound like we should all be rooting for Exxon Mobil, as if it was some put-upon Mom and Pop store.
"If they go broke, we all go broke," the announcer said. But only a few days before, Exxon Mobil released its second quarter earnings report for this year: $11.68 billion. It was the biggest quarterly profit ever posted by a U.S. corporation, surpassing the previous record of $11.66 billion, also posted by Exxon Mobil, in the fourth quarter of 2008. In fact, Exxon Mobil holds the record for the top ten most profitable quarters ever scored by a U.S. corporation, as well as the all-time largest annual profit.
An underdog Exxon Mobil ain't.
But acting like an underdog, suggesting that Mobil is under some kind of threat — from the government, no doubt — is a great way to create the appearance of common cause with people who feel threats of one kind or another almost every day. Like, for instance, the people sitting under the trees for an afternoon of bluegrass music.
These folks could afford the price of admission, but they probably have friends or family members who are either unemployed or afraid of being laid off. Most of them have seen their household income drop over the past 10 years; they're likely having a harder time paying off mortgages and credit card bills, and their savings don't amount to enough for them to consider retiring. They pray they don't get sick because even if they have health insurance, it may not pay for whatever care they need.
For most families, life in these United States feels a lot more precarious than it used to. But if Mobil goes broke, well, look out.
The announcer at the bluegrass festival wasn't just talking about a threat — he was making one. The Bill Monroe Park was packed with motor homes and RVs, gas guzzlers, many of which were driven there by the grace of a pump price under $3. A year ago, $4 a gallon gas was running RV makers in Elkhart out of business, creating demand for smaller cars and even prompting some people to ride bikes and take the bus. It felt like shock therapy.
Oh, and Mobil was making record-breaking profits.
But now that the price at the pump is lower, life seems a little more like normal again. It makes you want to thank Mobil the way a dry drunk thanks the cashier who sells him a pint of Old Grand Dad just before closing time. It seems like that cashier is doing him a favor.
Saying that if Mobil goes broke, we all go broke reminded me of what the big health insurance companies are telling us these days. If the government provides people a public option — a form of health insurance intended to compete with private company rates, those companies say they'll go broke and we'll all have worse health care than we do now. They say their shareholder-driven plans can't compete with the government. This suggests that they think the government can create a plan that most people would prefer.
But then they also say the government can't do anything right.
Which is it?
The health insurance companies love heath care reform legislation without a public option because these proposals require everyone to buy health insurance. That's right: instead of a public option there's a mandate that requires us all to buy coverage from a private company. That would mean millions of new customers for the WellPoints and Aetnas.
This kind of health care reform wouldn't be about helping people — it would be about helping health insurance companies.
Opposing the public option is the health insurance companies' way of saying that if they go broke, we all go broke. It's not a warning, but a threat from an industry that, like Mobil, is used to having its way — regardless of what happens to the rest of us.