2009-12-31 / Editorial

A new generation of ‘draft dodgers’

• VIEWPOINT •
By Steve Heffner

Late next spring, nearly 250 Jamestown kids will graduate from high school. The majority will get their diplomas from North Kingstown High School. Most of the rest will come from private schools. And I’m guessing there might be a few home-schoolers as well. What nearly all will have in common — and what is potentially significant in light of the current debate over health care reform — is their age: They will have turned 18 by graduation, or they will soon after.

Forty years ago, when I graduated from high school, that particular birthday came with baggage. The Vietnam War was raging, and being 18 meant you had reached draft age — and you remained part of the eligible draft pool through your 26th year. It was a turn of the calendar that had the power to convert a whole bunch of inattentive, apolitical 17-year-olds into committed 18-year-old anti-war activists overnight.

That rebellion by draft-age Americans against this country’s folly in Vietnam also engendered in many a wider, long-term mistrust of the government and of the big corporate institutions that seemed so wickedly bound up with it.

That legacy resurfaced profoundly last November, when Barack Obama was elected president by – in large part – people whose political awakenings came with their resistance to the Vietnam draft years back.

Today, in an odd turn, the president may be on the verge of herding the young adults of Jamestown, as well as their peers across the country, toward a new sort of draft-related epiphany. The difference this time around will be in the nature of the conscription: It won’t be a military muster; it will be a call to arms for the young and healthy to reach into their wallets to pay for health insurance.

As of this writing, the details of the health reform bill being pushed through Congress by the president and his fellow Democrats aren’t final, but it is likely to include a mandate requiring all adult Americans not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid to buy into private health insurance. While the idea has actuarial merit, it is also problematic on several fronts, especially for draft-agers.

Why? Because these kids don’t think they need health insurance.

The way they see it, they’re young, they’re strong, they’re practically invulnerable. Cancer is 40 or 50 years in the future. So is heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke and the litany of other infirmities whose likelihood increases with age.

But as Obama explained to an audience of draft-agers at a rally at the University of Maryland not long ago, the mandate that everyone must buy in, young and old, healthy or not so, is Heath Insurance 101 – the larger, and healthier, the pool of insured, the more money is available to pay for the medical care of those who actually need it. The president was cheered wildly, but the applause was for an idea only — a worthy one to be sure, but merely an abstraction for most of the youthful throng.

The real test will come just as it did back in the days of Vietnam, when the letters arrive in the mail notifying young Jamestowners and others that their numbers have been called. Forty years ago, these were orders to report to the draft board for a physical and processing into the Army. From Obama, they will be commands to join the army of the premium-paying public in a mission to prop up universal health care.

What will it cost? $100 a month? $200 a month? $500? $1,000? Nobody knows for sure yet. Even a full-time job with benefits might not be a guarantee against suddenly having to start making substantial monthly contributions toward health insurance. And it is dubious comfort when Obama asserts that, under his plan, kids can remain covered by their parents’ insurance through age 25. Because of the mandate, most of those parents will have some insurance — but what about the additional cost? Surely, the profit-driven insurance companies will boost rates to support the extended coverage for the kids. Who pays for that? And on your 26th birthday — what then?

One thing is certain: Draft age also means voting age. And though this demographic group has proven notoriously apathetic in the past about bothering to cast November ballots, what happens if their national duty to pay for something they don’t want — health insurance — leaves them short of cash to buy stuff they do want — sporty little cars, giant designer sunglasses, iPods, iPhones, iEtc? What happens if they suddenly wake from their dreamy childhood cocoons and ask, “Whose bad idea was this?”

One sure result will be an abundance of Republicans eager to proclaim, “Hey, kids, don’t blame us! None of us voted for this swindle! It was those tax-and-spend Democrat liberals, robbing you of your private property to build their socialist utopia!”

In the end, the problem for the president is that, while universal health coverage is an idea worth pursuing, to a certain impressionable group of voters, a government mandate to buy private health insurance can look a lot like a nasty draft notice. And the potential irony is that in issuing his well-meaning call to a kind of social patriotism, Obama could be giving rise to a generation of political opposition among the very children of parents whose own political allegiances were formed by the last draft.

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