The election, the common good, Starbucks, and driving safely

There’s been plenty of coverage of the Obama and McCain health plans during the presidential election campaign. I debated whether to contribute my opinion and decided against it. I think everyone is exhausted with media coverage. There’s a nice Time Magazine article this week on “The 24-Minute News Cycle.” It was reassuring to read that I’m not alone in refreshing the Google News page.

I can recommend some sources on the health care debate that go deeper than the rivalry of two candidates. There is a page put together by The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) called Election 2008. I especially liked the article “Three ‘Inconvenient Truths’ about Health Care” by V. R. Fuchs. I may write about that article later. Health care is not an issue that’s going to disappear simply because the election frenzy is over.

Another NEJM article I found interesting is “Voters and Health Reform in the 2008 Presidential Election.” It’s based on national opinion surveys, and shows how divided we are along party lines when it comes to health care: “In contrast to Senator Obama’s backers, Senator McCain’s supporters place a lower priority on reforming health care and favor a less expansive role for the federal government in increasing coverage for the uninsured. They also advocate a lesser role for government regulation of health care costs and more emphasis on the private sector, as well as more restrained federal health spending. Finally, they believe in a more central role for individual responsibility in addressing the nation’s health care problems.”

During the election campaign, the issue of health care could have been an opportunity to raise the level of discussion above that of individual interests. “Individual responsibility,” like lifestyle choices, reflects a strong libertarian tradition in the US. The libertarian viewpoint assumes that rational choices are based on self-interest, that free markets are the most efficient markets, and that historic inequalities can be ignored. Seventy-one percent of Americans agree with the statement that the poor could escape poverty if they worked hard enough.

The common good

One reason it’s difficult to make a case for the common good and the “moral economy of interdependence” is that moral and political language has been hijacked by the therapeutic culture.

“Because the therapeutic self defines situations in terms of its own wishes and wants, the question is not ‘Is this right or wrong?’ but rather ‘Does this work for me?’ … The results of this kind of thinking is a kind of moral relativism, or perhaps more accurately a kind of moral nihilism. It is difficult to imagine how any notion of community – or, indeed, vision for public health – can be built on the basis of a therapeutic language.”


My agreement with that sentiment, from Ann Robertson, explains why I felt so disappointed – and exploited – by the Starbucks commercial I saw last night on SNL.

Watching the ad online isn’t the same experience as having it sneak up on you unexpectedly. I was on my way to the kitchen during a commercial break when the music caught my attention. Visually and acoustically, it’s a very well done commercial. The words say:

“What if we all cared enough to vote? Not just 54% of us, but 100% of us? What if we cared as much on Nov. 5th as we care on Nov. 4th? What if we cared all of the time the way we care some of the time? What if we cared when it was inconvenient as much as we care when it’s convenient? Would your community be a better place? Would our country be a better place? Would our world be a better place?”

At this point, they really had my attention. I want to know: Who is this that cares so much about community? I could get behind that. Who’s putting out this ad capitalizing on all the positive sentiments of hope the Obama campaign has ignited? The ad concludes: “We think so, too. If you care enough to vote, we care enough to give you a free cup of coffee.”

Turns out it was a Starbucks ad. How disappointing! I read some of the comments on YouTube later, and I didn’t find anyone who felt the way I did. What I found was:

“lol nothing is stopping me from not voting and still getting free coffee at every strabucks in the area”

“I always voted since I could vote so this wouldn’t affect me other then a free drink. Anyways I doubt its going to be anything fancy and I don;t drink coffee. I’d however take a free hot chocolate or a free Chai Tea Latte. even if it was only a cup.”

Many of the comments were about the music. What was it? Or complaints that the ad was a rip off of “The Girl Effect” (funded by Nike, BTW).

Driving safely

One last word on the election: drive safely. There is a statistically significant increase in fatal motor vehicle accidents on election day (greater than the risk on Super Bowl Sunday). Explanations include increased traffic, increased average speed, distraction, driving an unfamiliar route, decreased police presence (are they at the polls?), and demographics (even the most unfit drivers have to get to the polls on election day). Maybe that cup of coffee BEFORE voting is a good idea.


(Hover over book titles for more info. Links will open in a separate window or tab.)

James Poniewozik, “The Media’s 24-minute news cycle,” Time Magazine, Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

Robert J. Blendon et al, “Voters and Health Reform in the 2008 Presidential Election,” The New England Journal of Medicine.

V. R. Fuchs, “Three ‘Inconvenient Truths’ about Health Care,” The New England Journal of Medicine. Volume 359:1749-1751, October 23, 2008, Number 17.

Elizabeth Gudrais, “Unequal America: Causes and consequences of the wide–and growing–gap between rich and poor,” Harvard Magazine, July-August 2008. The statistic “71% of Americans agree” comes from this article.

Ann Robertson, “Health Promotion and the Common Good: Reflections on the Politics of Need,” in Promoting Healthy Behavior: How Much Freedom? Whose Responsibility? (Hastings Center Studies in Ethics) edited by Daniel Callahan.

The Girl Effect homepage

Donald A. Redelmeier et al, “Driving Fatalities on US Presidential Election Days,” The New England Journal of Medicine. Vol. 300:1518-1520, October 1, 2008, Number 13.


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