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Autumn 2014
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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
The Life of Zachary
Imagining how the next generation will fare in the Obama administration’s scenario
4 May 2012

The Obama reelection campaign has created a fictional character, “Julia,” whose starring role in an online slideshow, “The Life of Julia,” has gone viral online. Julia’s story is meant to show voters “how President Obama’s policies help one woman over her lifetime.” Viewers are supposed to understand that Obama-administration policies—including funding Head Start for pre-kindergartners, mandating that insurers cover birth-control prescriptions, and preserving Medicare—have made Julia’s life better. For instance, at age 31, Julia “decides to have a child,” benefiting from “maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform.”

How might Julia’s son, whom she names Zachary, fare in a post-Obama world? Herewith “The Life of Zachary.”

Age 0: Zachary is born. Nine months earlier, Julia’s government-provided birth control failed. Unprepared for this development, Julia’s sexual partner texted her that he was not ready for a child. Julia went ahead and had the baby, and so Zachary has entered the world without a father. He starts off with disadvantages because of Julia’s “choice.” But luckily, he’s a smart, sturdy tyke.

Age 3: Zachary gets an earache. Though distressed that Zachary is in pain, Julia is relieved that her government-provided health care will take care of everything. She calls up Zachary’s pediatrician to make an emergency appointment. Zachary’s doctor’s assistant reminds Julia that the doctor’s practice sent out letters months ago to patients informing them that the practice no longer accepts health insurance. Reimbursement rates are far too low for the doctor to make a profit that way. The assistant gently suggests that Julia sign up for the doctor’s concierge service, which offers visits for a $5,000 annual retainer and a $200 per-visit fee. Otherwise, she can go to the local emergency room. Julia opts for the emergency room and waits seven hours for a check-up and prescription. Because she has no spouse to share this burden, she misses work and loses a day’s pay.

Age 5: Zachary starts kindergarten. Julia drops Zachary off at his first day of public kindergarten. She is surprised and perplexed to find that despite the hefty local property taxes she pays, the class is large. While Zachary is at school, Julia does some Googling and finds that more and more of her taxes pay for pension and health benefits for retired teachers, not for salaries for current teachers. She wonders vaguely whether all that money from the federal government will really help Zachary.

Age 17: Zachary applies to college. Julia isn’t too worried about the cost. She knows that her government takes care of such things for hard-working middle-class folk like herself. She is dismayed, therefore, when she learns that the federal government considers Julia to be pretty well-off (Julia makes decent money by this point, but she lives in an expensive state, so she doesn’t save much). So the feds don’t offer her and Zachary much grant money for college. Julia explains to Zachary that the only way he can get an education and compete in the world is to go deeply into debt.

Age 18: Zachary doesn’t go to college. Zachary informs Julia that he won’t be going to college after all. He’s done some research and learned that many employers don’t consider a college education what it once was. Employers now have more respect for a young person who has taken free online classes from schools such as Harvard and MIT. Though these schools don’t offer degrees for such learning, they do offer certificates of completion for each class. Employers have come to realize that a person who compiles enough such certificates is just as smart as a person who has the degree—smarter, even, because he or she has shown skepticism and cost-consciousness at a young age. Zachary works at a local restaurant, babysits his younger half-sister, and works toward his education.

Age 22: Zachary gets into a car accident. Zachary is driving at a reasonable speed when he must swerve to avoid a giant hole in the road. He breaks his arm. His local emergency room treats him after a 14-hour wait. While waiting, Zachary leafs through an old magazine informing him that the Obama administration’s stimulus was supposed to ensure that America had twenty-first-century infrastructure. Zachary needs physical therapy for six weeks afterward. He finds, though, that no physical therapist within a 100-mile radius accepts any form of insurance. He does some reading on the Internet and teaches his half-sister how to help him exercise his arm.

Age 23: Zachary gets a good job. Zachary’s employer is a small businesswoman wary of hiring other women. A few years ago, a female employee sued her for paying less than a male employee made. The court didn’t accept the businesswoman’s argument that the employee was paid less because, as a single mother, she often needed time off to watch her child. Zachary’s employer doesn’t like to think of herself as discriminatory, but she knows that she can’t go wrong hiring a young, single, white man. If it doesn’t work out, she can let him go and won’t face a lawsuit.

Age 25: Zachary meets a nice girl. Zachary meets a woman at work (his employer has taken a legal chance on this hardworking young lady). But in getting to know her, Zachary learns that she has $70,000 in student loans, plus $10,000 in credit-card debt. She makes about the same salary that Zachary does. Zachary likes her, but he can’t help but worry that if he got serious with her, he would be taking on a tremendous debt burden. Zachary often thinks long-term; he realizes that if he married her in a few years, both of them would have to work full-time, even if they had children, in order to stay current on the debt. They remain friends.

Age 27: Zachary’s boss asks him to become a junior partner. One of new responsibilities is to oversee the purchase of employee benefits. Zachary finally figures out why his salary has been so modest all these years: he’s been paying for everyone else’s discretionary health care. In perusing insurers’ marketing materials as well as government regulations, he realizes that he’s got to subsidize everything from birth-control pills to sleeping medication. He wonders why, if such medication is so important to people’s health, they can’t pay the modest out-of-pocket costs themselves. Nobody subsidizes his thrice-weekly glass of wine or weekly canoe rental. Zachary determines to pay more attention to what politicians say about health-care reform.

Age 31: Zachary decides to get married. Zachary always felt that he was missing something as a kid, not having a father around. Two years later, Zachary and his wife have a child.

Age 37: Zachary’s child is supposed to start kindergarten. Zachary knows that the local public school is a mess. Among other things, the teachers are obsessed with standardized tests, as test scores are the key to more money from the feds—money the school thinks it needs, because so many parents have gotten their children certified as “special-needs,” meaning that everyone else must subsidize their individualized classroom attention. Zachary’s neighbor informs him that some local parents have gotten together to send their kids to an informal school. They have hired their own teacher, a young woman working her way through her online education; the school holds classes out of a residential basement. Zachary pays to join. He soon gets tired of paying twice to send his kid to school once, so he votes for state and local candidates who support a voucher program under which parents can take their education-tax dollars and put them toward a school of their choice, including schools like this one.

Age 42: Zachary’s mom calls him, crying. Julia is 73 now. She likes working, so she wasn’t too upset when the government abruptly pushed the Social Security retirement age for full benefits back five years, to 72. But now that she’s been collecting benefits for a year, she realizes that what she collects isn’t enough to live on. She’s more upset, though, at the reforms to Medicare that have just been enacted. Though generations of politicians promised never to touch benefits for people close to retirement age, in the end, they had no choice: younger voters demanded it. The basic Medicare package now will cover only big-ticket items. All but the poorest are on their own when it comes to doctor’s visits, prescription drugs, and tests.

Julia wonders who on earth voted for the politicians who put these reforms into place. After all, the tax increases that the losing side proposed didn’t seem so onerous. Meanwhile, the house that she bought so long ago under one of the government’s efforts to lure people into the busted housing market (a 3 percent down payment seemed like such a good deal at the time) never recovered its value, so she can’t depend on selling it to fund her old age. Younger people simply chose to live within their means and stay away from the McMansions that remain the legacy of early-century folly. Zachary counsels his mom to try to cut her expenses. But it’s hard for her to do, especially with the price of food. Julia starts a garden.

Age 62: Zachary’s mom moves in with him. Julia is now 93, but she still has her health. She can’t afford to live on her own any more, though, since the government suspended cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security for a half-decade. The price of prescription medication is out of reach for Julia. But she grows medicinal herbs in her transplanted and flourishing garden.

Age 67: At 98, Julia helps homeschool her great-granddaughter, little Julia. In helping little Julia with her history lesson, the elder Julia chuckles at a chapter about the grand improvements promised by the Obama administration. In the end, the country turned out fine. But it owed its success to the ingenuity of Americans as they worked around government “protections,” not within them.

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