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Opinion

May 24, 2014

Shribman: Debate over old questions informs way to the future

In almost every period of our history, the national focus has been on the future. The debate about slavery was about the preservation or the abolition of the peculiar institution, not about its origins. The debate about civil rights was about the prerogatives of blacks in a changing nation, not about the roots of prejudice. The debate about Vietnam was about whether the country’s fall to communism would trigger the fall of other Asian dominoes, not about America’s legacy of involvement in the East.

Which is why this is such an extraordinary moment in our national life. For the country in recent weeks has been engaged in three unusual debates, focused not on a misty future but on a cloudy past, designed not to shape the years to come but to understand years gone by. This is a distinctly un-American impulse, and yet this is a peculiarly American passage, a pause to examine our most fateful pathways and to evaluate our most cherished mythologies.

This is a moment that comes as the affirmative-action doctrine that has governed admission to the nation’s most selective colleges and professional schools is being rethought, as the nation’s response to the fall of the Soviet bloc is being reassessed, and as the presidencies of both Presidents Bush are being reappraised.

But standing out amid all these re-evaluations are three other, critical undertakings in reanalysis, serious reassessments that are not mere academic exercises but are instead vital examinations that will, even as they look back, guide Americans as they move forward. Here are the old questions, full of new implications, which are being asked by policymakers and voters alike:

How did we get into this irrational situation with medical care, where health insurance is tied to employment?

No one designing a health care system for a post-industrial nation of enormous wealth and with some of the most advanced medical facilities in the world would tie the health of its citizens to the employment of its citizens. And, in fact, no one did. It just developed that way, the result of efforts to improve the quality of life of workers’ families without providing wage hikes and without exposing their improved circumstances to increases in their tax bills.

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