Alice in Medicareland One Voucher Makes You Larger

Richard Eskow

“If I had a world of my own,” said Alice, “everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t.”

The rabbit hole’s got nothing on this place.”Let’s save Social Security from a 25% cut in 27 years,” they told Alice, “by cutting more than that, starting now.” Paul Ryan’s GOP plan doesn’t “end Medicare,” they explained. It just, well, ends it. And vouchers aren’t really vouchers. Even “fact-checking” site Politifact joined in, chastising Democrats for saying Ryan’s proposal would “change the essential nature of Medicare.” That was right before they noted that it would “end the aspect of Medicare that directly covers specific services, such as hospital coverage.”

If you thought that the “aspect of Medicare” that directly pays for hospital coverage was Medicare, then apparently you are a very silly person.

Politifact even found an ‘expert’ to challenge the notion that the GOP even voted to change Medicare! Calumnies and lies, he says: “Republicans voted to hopefully change it one day, when they get a chance, but they would need a Republican-dominated Senate and a Republican president, neither of which they have.”

You stand rebuked, Sirs! (Madams too, of course.) A vote to end something isn’t a vote to end something unless that something ends! Why didn’t I vote for John Kerry to be President? Because he’s not President! I voted to hopefully make him President one day when I get a chance. Why, that’s not the same at all! A vote’s not a vote, a voucher’s not a voucher, and for all we know Paul Ryan isn’t really Paul Ryan. Then came an urgent scratching like a cat, and a tiny voice like Alice’s. The poor thing’s lost inside the Looking Glass again. Or is it the Beltway? Doesn’t matter. Imagine what it must feel like to be her, lost in a place where everything’s backwards. Imagine, if you can. Close your sleepy eyes and dream …

(Picture wavy images and harp music here. What do you mean, why? To show that that a dream has started, of course! Suddenly you hear a voice calling your name — you’re Alice, remember?)

Alice! the voice shouts. Don’t you ride the bus or subway to school every day?

Mmm, yes, you say. Sometimes one, sometimes the other.

Well, they’re getting rid of them and replacing them with vouchers.

Why? you ask. How?

Just then the Cato Institute Caterpillar – the Cato-Pillar – appears before you, sitting on an ornate toadstool built by generous corporate donors. Beside him is the Mad Hatter, er, the Bad Tanner, we mean, the “Tan Boehner” – with a pricetag on his hat that reads “Citizens United.”

Ahem, they say. We think buses and subways are too expensive, don’t you? So we’re taking them away.

But, you ask, why not just fix what makes them expensive?

You’ll like this better, they say. A bus or subway ride costs $2.50. Soon it’ll cost $5.00. That’s too much,don’t you think? So we’ll just give you $2.50 instead.

But how will I get to school? you ask. How will my parents get to work?

Ah, they say. There will be taxis. Wonderful, wonderful taxis. Taxis that aren’t owned and operated by the evil government.

But a taxi driver tried to cheat me once, you say. And when we came back from vacation, another one tried to take us all over town and …

Stop! they said. We will turn them into good taxis.

But, you say, I don’t have another $2.50. And some people’s rides might cost fifty dollars! Who can afford that?

You don’t understand, they reply. Competition can do wonderful things! Our plan will replace the purchasing power of everybody’s money all put together with … well, with $2.50. And then Competition will lower the cost of cab fare, and make the cabs better too.

If Competition can do all that, you ask, why hasn’t it done it already?

Trust us, they reply. Believe.

I want to believe, you say. But how will it lower cab fares to give taxi drivers millions of new riders? Doesn’t increased demand lead to higher prices? Isn’t that how the free market works?

They shake their heads sadly. Silly girl, they mutter. Then they hand you a book with a note on its cover that says “Read Me.” You open it and gasp.

Ayn Rand? How will this help?

It answers everything, says one. But you have to read it with your heart, not your head. That’s the secret.

I don’t like this! You stamp your foot. I don’t like this at all! I use the subway and the buses every day and now you’re shutting them down!

Their faces grow red. That’s a lie! We’re not shutting down the subways and buses! We’re reforming them!

You say, Reforming them? But they’ll be sold for scrap! You’ll rip out the seats and sell the copper wiring to people with wheelbarrows!

Wel-l-l-l … they murmur.

You’ll take those subway cars and buses to a junkyard, where they’ll be pounded into metal cubes and buried in landfill! The token machines will gather dust! The dark and cavernous tunnels and stations will echo only with the cries of rats! Spiderwebs will cover the entrances and the turnstiles will rust! There will be no people, no subways, no buses – They’ll all be gone! How can you “reform” something by making it go away?

Ahh, they say. Look at your new voucher. See what it says at the top? It says “This voucher is your new bus or subway.” That’s what we call our plan: “Your New Bus or Subway.” Then the Cheshire PolitiCat scolds you in a husky, purring voice. Stop being a demagogue about this very important issue, it says.

But buses and subways have wheels! you shout. Where are the wheels?

Don’t you remember what Humpty Dumpty told you? asks the PolitiCat. “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” The word “voucher” can mean whatever they choose it to mean. It can even mean “bus,” or “subway,” or “Medicare.” Words are very nonpartisan.

Ahem. The Cato-Pillar and the Tan Boehner cough gently. Please don’t call it a “voucher” anymore, either. We’ve decided to call it “Travel Support.” That sound so very much more pleasant, don’t you think? PolitiCat purrs.

See, Alice? says the Tan Boehner. You’re not holding a piece of paper anymore. It’s a “train” or a “bus.” The one in your hand is the Number Nine to Main Street. He salutes it smartly. And I’m holding the Uptown Local. He moves it along the floor, making little engine noises with his mouth.

You toss the pieces of paper into the air. The Cato-Pillar and the Tan Boehner fall to their hands and knees, the PolitiCat on its haunches beside them. Grab them! they all cry. Someone shouts, The Midtown Express is getting crushed! They all weep softly. A twelve-car subway train just blew down the street like confetti, they say.

They’re not really buses or subways, you say. They’re just vouchers.

You’re playing word games about a very important subject, says the PolitiCat. The Newspaper People nod their papery heads in agreement. Some “moderate” human chess pieces, who are really Democrats standing in the center of a tilted chessboard, stand up and shout in chorus: We agree!

The PolitiCat hisses,You must treat the vouchers as if they were really buses and subways. It holds up a wrinkled piece of paper with its paw. Now tell this train you’re sorry, it says. These are very serious people, say the Newspaper People. They applaud, but all that can be heard is the rustle of crumpling paper.

I think I’m in hell, you say. I can’t take any more.

You mean you can’t take any less! the Cato-Pillar and the Tan Boehner say cheerfully. Remember when the Mad Hatter said that to you? Now we’re saying it too. After all, they chuckle, you sure can’t take any less than we’ll give you!

I thought I was in a sweetly-illustrated Victorian edition of my story, you say to yourself, but this feels more like a Tim Burton movie. So off you go to the Congressional Town Hall meeting, where you see lots of other Alices. You thought you were the only one, but you’re not. Funny, the Newspaper People never said there were others. But there they are, male and female and Democratic and Republican and young and old, and they’re all saying, You want to take our our buses and subways away! You want to give us vouchers for rides we can’t afford! One sharp-eyed Alice stands up and points a finger at the Representative: You get campaign money from cab drivers, don’t you? He looks worried. Soon he goes off to huddle with the other Representatives, and with the Tan Boehner and the Cato-Pillar too.

You know, they say, we didn’t really mean it. Buses and subways can be like vouchers, they say, but only when we pretend. We were just pretending. But it was a good starting point for negotiations, wasn’t it?

The Newspaper People nod their heads. That’s a serious position, they say.

Now we have a new idea, say the Representatives. We won’t scrap the buses and subway cars. We’ll make up an Imaginary Number instead. And when the Imaginary Number doesn’t appear, the buses and subway cars will scrap themselves!

Scrap themselves? Your voice quavers in fear: You mean a Trigger? A Kill Switch?

The Chess Pieces cheer. We can find Common Ground with that! they shout. And so it ends, as quickly as it began. The Cato-Pillar and the Tan Boehner wander off in search of a missing hookah. The Cheshire PolitiCat fades away until nothing’s left but a very impartial-looking grin. The Chess Pieces wait to be told where to move next. The Newspaper People blow away in a soft gust of digital wind.

You sigh and melt back through the looking glass. What a terrible dream! you say to yourself. Then you turn on the television and there they all are: The Representatives, the Cato-Pillar, the Tan Boehner and the PolitiCat and the Chess Pieces and the Newspaper People and all the rest of them. They’re smiling out at you, babbling about triggers and ceilings and …

Stop it! you shout at them. It would be so nice everything made sense for a change! Can’t everything make sense again?

Not in this town, honey, they say in unison.
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This post was written as part of the Strengthen Social Security project.

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