“Cancer of the Wallet”

I read a lot this past week. But I stumbled across one phrase that won’t leave my mind: “cancer of the wallet.”

This is an evocative term for the diseases and deaths of despair: the ill effects of existential stress that pile up in people who can’t see a way to maintain a livelihood or way of living.

This, according to Yale historian Timothy Snyder, is “What Ails America.” His diagnosis is more academic than “cancer of the wallet,” but it’s just as damning:

We would like to think we have health care that incidentally involves some wealth transfer; what we actually have is wealth transfer that incidentally involves some health care. If birth is not safe, and is less safe for some than for others, then something is wrong. If more money is extracted from young adults for health care, but they are less well than older generations, something is wrong. If the people who used to believe in the country are killing themselves, something is wrong. The purpose of medicine is not to squeeze maximum profits from sick bodies during short lives but to enable health and freedom during long ones.

Can anything be done? In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer cautiously hopes that it might. Considering what the ascendence of the movement for Black lives might mean for our politics, he wonders if we might be on the verge of “A New Reconstruction.”

At more and more levels of society, the dots are starting to connect: the United States might be a great country, but it also has a mean streak — a historic and present reality of systems that are actively injurious to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Learning to live with this tension — America is an ideal, and it is deeply sick — is the political challenge of our times. And the reality hits hard: a white male history professor at Yale is the epitome of a certain kind of privilege, yet the hospital system was thoroughly unimpressed.

As the financial crisis unfolded, Warren Buffett famously compared the rescue of the banking system to resuscitating a patient on the operating table. Now, as the Covid crisis drags on, it’s the citizenry at large that’s on the table.

I’m not holding my breath for a competent or compassionate response from the thousandaire embodiment of what ails America. Cancer of the ego is an evil malady indeed.