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How a Government Takeover Saved 33 Lives

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In a world pockmarked by hunger and poverty, darkened by misery, riven by earthquake, scorched by fire, ravaged by flood, and shattered by bombs, we have just witnessed a modern miracle. Thirty-three miners who had been buried alive for 68 days over 2,000 feet beneath the Atacama desert of northern Chile have been resurrected safely, brought up alive and remarkably well to the cheers and embraces of their families and friends.

And what made all this possible? A government takeover.

The private company that sent those men down thousands of feet to dig for copper and gold could not possibly have funded and organized the rescue operation. So it was taken over by the government of Chile, which spent more than 22 million dollars to get the men out. With the best equipment and engineering money can buy, the Chilean government authorized the drilling of three separate escape shafts so as to maximize chances of reaching the men as quickly as possible. One shaft reached the men, and out they came.

Since many Americans now denounce our government as the author of all evils, the Chilean rescue story reminds us of something we must never forget. Our government, and it is always our government, can also be the source of extraordinary good--precisely because it can do things that private companies cannot or will not do. Beyond defending us against foreign enemies, which it has always done, let us remember what our government does for us at home. Since 1935, it has provided Social Security for people over 65, and since 1965, it has furnished Medicare for them (or us, I should now say, since I'm 71 myself.) Is there anyone running for office out there who thinks we should abolish Social Security and Medicare, should end the government "takeover" of basic medical care and basic pension benefits for the seniors among us? 2010-10-14-capt.photo_128701941797810.jpgWhen these two programs were established, some voices darkly claimed they would lead us down the road to socialism. But even as our economy remains fundamentally capitalist, the vast majority of Americans would be dismayed to lose Social Security, and more than 90 % of Medicare recipients like it. Let's be honest about our government. It is not perfect. It sometimes makes big mistakes and wastes a lot of our money. But it also tackles some big, important jobs that no one else can do, and it sometimes does them very well.

One thing more about Chile: the survival and rescue of the miners took more than government funds and brilliant engineering at the top. It took whole-hearted co-operation among all parties to the rescue, beginning with the miners themselves down below. For 17 days, these 33 men lived on rations normally meant to sustain them for no more than two or three days. How did they do it? Under the extraordinary leadership of Luis Urzua, their foreman, they conscientiously shared what little they had, with each man taking precisely one spoonful of tuna fish every 48 hours. They must also have shared the conviction that each man's survival depended on all of the others down there with him--not to mention the people above. In the end, those people included Sebastian Pinera, the right-wing billionaire who recently won the presidency of Chile from a left-winger named Michelle Bachelet. Pinera not only hugged each one of the miners as he came out of the rescue capsule; he also promised a new set of regulations to make sure that Chilean miners would never be trapped again.

Time alone will tell whether or not Pinera keeps his word. But so long as the Chilean people remember the miners (and how can they ever forget?), it will be difficult if not impossible for Pinera to forget about regulating the mines. And what Chilean politician will dare to oppose such regulation?

Almost as miraculous as the rescue itself was the spectacle of a billionaire president hugging miners earning $1600 a month. It may be only grandstanding for the cameras, but I strongly suspect that it is something more, that Pinera speaks and acts for a people united in joyous admiration for the miners and their rescuers: united right across the gulf between right and left, poverty and wealth, one political party and another.

Will we ever see anything like that kind of unity in what we call these United States? In our relentless quest for absolute freedom and individual rights, have we forgotten that our founding fathers drafted our constitution not only to ensure those rights but to achieve "a more perfect union"? Do we not see that if we destroy our government, which some seem bent on doing, we may end up just as doomed as those miners would have been without the help of theirs?

In my 71 years, I have never seen a country so divided as ours is now. Tea party candidates and their Republican allies seem united only by their hatred of the federal government and in particular of our president, who has enraged them chiefly because he backed the passage of a bill that makes health insurance available to millions of Americans who up to now couldn't pay for it or were denied coverage because of preexisting conditions. In other words, the Tea Partiers and the Republicans want to punish the president for providing what every other developed country considers a basic human right: access to affordable health care.

In recent years, some of our government's decisions have have cost us mightily in blood and treasure. Like millions of other Americans, I believe we should not have gone to war against Iraq, and especially not cut taxes while doing so. I also believe that we will never rise up out of the hole of our present deficit without restoring the tax rates that prevailed ten years ago--for at least the wealthiest among us. (The idea that we can cut the deficit without raising taxes at all has been called "a big lie" by David Stockman, the architect of the economic revolution that took place under Ronald Reagan.)

So the present election offers us a choice: not a choice among those who call themselves Republicans, Democrats, or Tea Partiers, but a choice between sustaining the paralyzing divisiveness that we have seen over the past two years and committing ourselves to co-operation, collaboration, and--yes--political compromise across ideological lines. Without such a commitment, I fear for the survival of these dis-United States.