Rollerball and the Public Option

I’m a sci-fi movie fan, and “Rollerball” is a favorite of mine. Mind you, I’m not talking about the disposable 2002 retread, but instead the original 1975 classic with James Caan and John Houseman, in which an oligarch of giga-businesses have done away with archaic traditional governments and now run the world, well, like a business. To maintain their employee citizens’ contented complacency, the corporate regents have provided a modern bread-and-circuses in the form of Rollerball, a violent fusion of roller derby and basketball. Rollerball starts as an action flick, but it quickly peels away deeper layers, revealing the corporations’ evil mass social management agenda. Rollerball’s opening music, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, sets the incongruous tone, intertwining levitas and gravitas as we watch the stage set, literally, for the movie’s first rock ‘em sock ‘em Rollerball match.

The oligarch seems pretty scary in Rollerball, invisibly pulling the strings that control the commoners’ visible universe. But it’s not the notion of businesses running the world that I find most frightening. What really scares me is the fact that those businesses don’t have any competition. What history has shown us countless times is that when companies coalesce into monopolies, wringing out competition along the way, their priorities pivot away from creativity and innovation, twisting instead toward entrenchment and status quo.

Take health care reform, for example. Despite the fact that a clear majority of Americans want a public option, there is none in the Senate bill passed this week. Why? Because the industry doesn’t want competition. Insurance companies have spent a fantastic amount of money excising competition from their world. There’s no way competitors are going to be permitted back into the industry’s zany idea of a free market economy. Apparently competition, even that from an organization as uninspired, wasteful, bureaucratic, and inefficient as our federal government must look like a sleek rocket ship from the future in the eyes of Flintstone-era insurance industry execs.

Those executives don’t have a lot of incentive to rock the boat. The captains of the top three companies in this particular industry average over $15 million a year in total compensation and their shareholders are perfectly content with the status quo. There’s no real competition within the oligarch, so life is just about perfect. As a businessperson, the only thing I would note (besides the little detail that their business model is unconscionable), is that you don’t need to pay someone $15 million a year to maintain the status quo. For that matter, it shouldn’t require a full time job. Heck, I’d be willing to do it in my spare time for under a million.

What should you expect from a CEO that hauls in $15 million a year? Inspiration. You should expect a company to create innovative goods and services that people really need and want. Actually, for that kind of money, you need to go way beyond simple innovation. You need to provide brilliantly creative offerings that people love. I don’t often hear “love” used in customers’ vocabulary used to describe their health insurance experience. I do hear other four-letter words, though.

As a businessperson, I don’t have a problem with businesses earning a reasonable profit in exchange for the investment they make to bring quality products and services to market. As maddening as are their apparatchik bureaucracy and sphincter-like cheapness, that’s not what troubles me the most about the health insurance industry. What really disturbs me is the nature of their business model. At its core lays a fundamental conflict of interest between the needs of the customer and the needs of the company. It’s one thing when that conflict involves balancing customer demands for, say, better cell phone coverage, against the money required to make that coverage happen. It’s an entirely different thing when the conflict involves balancing corporate financial objectives against a human misery quotient. My bias for capitalism notwithstanding, I think that businesses that trade in human lives should not be left up to the free market. The irony is that an unfree market is precisely what we have in our 400 billion dollar Rollerball insurance industry, with that industry spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep it that way. Bizarrely enough, their only real competitor is their customer, the American taxpayer, who has made not one, but multiple Herculean attempts at landmark, groundbreaking, game-changing legislation over decades to force an industry to do nothing more than what all businesses should do: give customers what they want.

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