Risk. Not the game. Not a game.

If there’s one thing you read about the presidential election related to all the happenings on Wall Street, take a look at Ron Brownstein in the National Journal. It makes the link between the financial sector crisis and policy on retirement, health care, and other hot-button issues. He quotes Jacob Hacker, author of the The Great Risk Shift, and soon-to-be-professor at UC-Berkeley, about the fundamental question in this election. Read the whole thing, but’s here’s a few paragraphs:

Although neither McCain nor Obama has framed the situation this way, their reactions to this transfer of risk and responsibility represent a fundamental dividing line between them. Like President Bush, who touted an “ownership society,” McCain has welcomed these shifts of responsibility as giving individuals more control over their financial future. On several fronts, McCain in fact wants to accelerate these trends.

Today, most Americans still receive their health insurance through group coverage (either from government or employers) that shares risk and cost between the healthy and the sick. Relatively few obtain insurance in the individual market, which exposes consumers to much wider variations in cost and coverage depending on their health. McCain’s proposal would push more people toward the individual market (perhaps 20 million more, according to an independent study released this week) by replacing the tax break that promotes employer-based coverage with an individual tax credit….

Obama, by contrast, wants to strengthen the institutions that promote the sharing of risk. His health care plan aims to buttress group-based coverage, either through employers or new government-sponsored purchasing networks. He adamantly opposes private accounts under Social Security and would instead offer tax incentives for workers to invest for retirement in accounts intended to supplement Social Security’s guaranteed benefits.

In all these respects, the McCain-Obama contest represents a fork in the road that will likely determine whether the nation continues to shift more financial responsibility to individuals, or seeks opportunities to restore more sharing of risk. This week’s chaos on Wall Street, which rattled millions of workers relying on the markets to fund a decent retirement, shows how much average Americans have at stake in that choice. “This is a critical watershed moment,” Hacker correctly notes, “because it really captures in sharp relief both the stakes and what the core of this debate is.”

Brownstein overlooks that Obama did explicitly counter the “you’re on your own” philosophy of the so-called “ownership society” in his convention speech, which didn’t get much attention because of the announcement of Sarah Palin’s selection the next day.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is – you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own.

But the rest of the analysis by Brownstein and Hacker is spot-on. This debate is bigger than all of us, including Obama and McCain.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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