Valley Voices

Howard V. Hendrix: Free college and health care? No thanks, Bernie, I’ll pass

Howard V. Hendrix
Howard V. Hendrix

Because I have spent more than 30 years teaching at the college level (mostly in public higher education) and am a veteran of California’s single-payer health care initiative campaign, I must refuse what Bernie Sanders is offering when it comes to free college for all and single-payer health care for all.

I was the first person in my family to attend college – what is today called a “first-generation college student.” Helped by academic partial scholarships but still finding it necessary to also work in order to pay my way through school, my younger self would certainly have appreciated free college.

Fresno State, where I teach, serves a region where a third of all children grow up in households below the poverty line. Many of my students are also first-generation college students and would also no doubt appreciate free college.

Yet my years on the other side of the podium have shown me that free college with no (or very weak) strings attached would be a mistake. A major assumption underlying the idea of free college is that it will give more students more time to pursue an intellectual life.

For that to be a reality, however, free college programs must involve both rigorous academic standards (not just “overall grade point average of B”) and binding limitations on the number of hours students can work outside school.

Without the necessary academic and work-hour standards, free college programs will exacerbate college-level social promotion and grade inflation trends among faculty, and graduation delay among students.

Without such standards (found nowhere in Sanders’ plans), free college will encourage students to spend more hours chasing dollars, not more hours becoming scholars.

My personal experience as a campaign volunteer with the California single-payer health care initiative similarly makes me question the senator’s rosy scenario about the prospects for a national single-payer health care system.

Speaking at house parties and talking to college groups as part of the California campaign two decades ago, I was happy to give my time to the single-payer effort, but today I have grave doubts about the political feasibility of establishing a national single-payer health care program.

Despite our best efforts, we single-payer campaigners had our derrieres handed to us in the 1994 election – a 73 percent to 27 percent defeat. Many of the same forces that killed single-payer in California oppose it still more powerfully today at the national level, a truth only hinted at by the partisan ordeal that accompanied passage of the Affordable Care Act.

The contemporary history of single-payer legislation in California is also intriguing. Such legislation has not been allowed to get out of either Democrat-controlled branch of the Legislature despite the election of Democrat Jerry Brown as governor.

Why? California’s Democratic leaders know that if a single-payer bill passes out of the Legislature and is signed into law by the governor, the insurance industry will put repeal of single-payer on the ballot, and the insurance industry will win.

What makes me most question the political feasibility of a national single-payer system, however, was my experience speaking in favor of California’s initiative to an audience made up of members of the health sciences club at Fresno State.

The club members, most of whom were pre-meds, reacted very negatively to the idea of single-payer. Their reasoning ran something like this: “I’m a pre-medical student. I’m going to get into med school. I’m going to finish med school. I’m going to become a doctor who will, not incidentally, make boatloads of money. Why should I support any government program that will cap my earnings and raise my taxes?”

They saw a vote for single-payer as a vote against their future selves. The America those students were looking for was not the land of peace, love, and acoustic guitars. It was that high-wage, low-tax land of the American Dream.

This nation was born of a tax rebellion and still manifests sensitive dependence upon its initial conditions – something the senator has chosen to ignore, to my fellow Democrats’ peril.

Through appealing both to a dreamy sort of magical thinking and to a nostalgia for a past that never actually was, Sanders hopes to take all the promises he cannot keep and – Hey! Presto! – change them into an offer we can’t refuse.

Thanks for the offer, senator, but no thanks. I’ve seen that trick before, and I’m seeing it double now.

Shaver Lake resident Howard V. Hendrix, the author of six science-fiction novels, has held jobs ranging from janitor to fish hatchery manager to university professor and administrator.