When I set out to write bluntly about my own health care coverage woes in the individual market, it’s not like I didn’t anticipate the predictable, knee-jerk response from my hateful trolls: “Get a job!”
In fact, this was exactly the response I was looking for, as nothing demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of the anti-reform crowd more than their refusal to recognize how our employment-based health insurance system distorts the market and stifles innovation.
For example, just take a look at some of my own varied career choices.
I graduated college in 1985 with a B.A. in History and a passion for musical theater, only to stumble into a proto-Dot.Com career years before the buzzword became vogue. Hired by Philadelphia-based Information Companies of America for the position of “20th Century Renaissance Man” (yes, that was the title I put on my cover letter), my original duties ranged from writing movie reviews to developing and maintaining online versions of health industry publications such as The Medical Letter, and the always entertaining Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
During my three-plus years at ICOA and its sister company, US Fax, I quickly rose to the somewhat inflated title of Vice President of Product Development, in which role I wrote the functional specs for a consumer-oriented online service that was never developed, and the world’s first store-and-forward fax mail and broadcast system that was, but which was never fully brought to market. It was an exciting, creative job that paid well and provided generous health benefits. In fact it paid so well compared to my frugal, post-college lifestyle, that I soon had enough savings to leave Philadelphia and the world of full-time employment to pursue my dream of writing Broadway musicals.
Moving to New York with my songwriting partner (he music, me words), I spent the next few years writing, rewriting and workshopping what eventually became The Don Juan and the Non Don Juan, a chamber musical that with the distance of years I can honestly say was only slightly worse than its title. The show opened in December of 1991 at the respected Vineyard Theater in Manhatten, only to close for good three weeks later. That’s right, I am the co-author of an Off-Broadway musical flop, and I’ve got the bad review in the New York Times to prove it. Not to mention the bad review in the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and so on.
Oh well. That’s show biz.
During my time in New York, and with the help of my songwriting partner, who was also a software engineer, I expanded my technical skills, taking on odd consulting and programming contracts to supplement my dwindling savings. Together we also developed the world’s first rhyming dictionary software, initially for my own use, but eventually with the goal of finding an interested publisher. After following my new wife to her native Seattle in 1992, she and I decided to publish the software ourselves, and in April of 1993 the newly redesigned A Zillion Kajillion Rhymes hit the shelves to generally positive acclaim. And yes, I have the good review in the New York Times to prove it.
That’s what you call irony.
I don’t necessarily recommend starting a business on credit cards, but that’s what we did, and over the next few years we went on to develop and publish upgraded versions for Mac, Windows and eventually Palm OS, a companion cliche and catchphrase thesaurus, and our best-selling, if most short-lived product, a space-simulator shoot-em-up game for Macintosh, whimsically titled Eat My Photons! At its peak, Eccentric Software had one employee in addition to ourselves, and several hundred thousand dollars a year in sales within the U.S. and abroad. We hired a local designer to create our packaging and sales literature, contracted with Trojan Lithograph in Kent to print, duplicate, assemble, warehouse and ship our product to resellers, and did tens of thousands of dollars of business annually with Auburn based Zones Inc., which for years served a dual role as both our biggest customer and our biggest vendor. (You didn’t think the ads in those software catalogs were free, did you?)
As a mom and pop startup we pumped our fair share of business into the local economy, but while we never operated at a loss, we also never made enough money to pay ourselves a decent wage, let alone pay off our capital investment. By 1997, after Zones unexpectedly stiffed us over a holiday promotion gone bad, we had accumulated a six-figure personal debt.
Oh well. That’s capitalism.
Still, it’s hard to consider either venture a total loss. Sure, I guess my musical flopped Off-Broadway, but how many aspiring writers even get that far? Few artists ever achieve commercial or critical success, and those who do usually do so only after years of struggle. Without so many writers, performers and directors willing to try and fail, there would be no Broadway, no Hollywood, no multi-billion dollar entertainment industry at all.
Likewise, few start-up businesses survive beyond a handful of years, yet even in “failing” contribute greatly to the economy, often while preparing their founders and employees for future success. My then-wife, a former magazine editor, took the skills and experience gained from our business and turned them into a more lucrative job at a young Real Networks, whose stock options (and health benefits) helped us pay off our debt, while granting me the luxury of enjoying the first few years of my daughter’s life as a stay at home dad.
And while our rhyming dictionary software never made us rich, it was more than a little gratifying to know that so many successful songwriters were using it to make their lyrics better. Indeed, for a number of years straight, there wasn’t a single Tony, Oscar, Grammy or CMA presentation that didn’t include at least one nominee who I knew for a fact to be a customer.
Sure, call us failures if you want, but it’s people like us, eager to innovate and willing to take risks who have always been the engine of our economy, and from whom the occasional spectacular success arises. Do we really want to make their struggle even harder? Do we really want to sneer at would-be entrepreneurs, that if they want access to health care they should go get a job?
Or to phrase the question as clearly as possible: why was my salaried position at a venture-backed startup worthy of equal access to affordable health coverage, while my 24-hour workdays at my own startup was not? What is the economic or moral justification in that?
Impoverished by my years as a progressive blogger and activist, I may very well have to give in to my trolls’ admonishment to get a real job—one which hopefully comes with generous benefits—but to suggest that salaried employment should be a prerequisite for access to affordable health care is to ignore the profound complexity and diversity of our economy, while totally dissing the entrepreneurial spirit on which it is supposedly based.
Thus, as an answer to my own health insurance woes, “Get a job!” isn’t just an insult to me, it is an insult to America. And, by stifling innovation, mobility and entrepreneurialism, it is a surefire recipe for economic stagnation and decline.