07/03/2010 02:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Lowest Common Denominator of Politics -- and the Highest Common Denominator of Health

Does our politics always have to be conflict? Must politicians always operate in a blood-sport arena in which they attack their partisan opponents for everything -- even candor? In Washington DC, the discourse quickly seems to descend to the lowest common denominator. And oxymoronic as it might seem, the only thing that the two parties seem to have in common is a relish for political combat.

And so that's what we get: combat.

We might consider, as one brave example, an outburst of candor from Rep. John Boehner, the Republican Minority Leader. On Tuesday, he observed that an entitlement-cost solution should include raising the retirement age upward, to say, 70.

For his stating the obvious, Boehner was immediately barraged by Democrats hungry for a juicy campaign issue. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) declared that Boehner's words about Social Security were "callous, outrageous and frankly un-American."

Whereupon Boehner & Co. responded by noting that many top Democrats -- including Vice President Joe Biden, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn -- had said the same thing as Boehner: Uncle Sam will have to raise the retirement age.

So back and forth we go. And thus we see the full perversity of our politics: politicians attack each other for everything, including truth-telling. No wonder so little good gets done.

Indeed, most experts in Washington think that some such adjustment in entitlements, including the retirement age, is necessary, lest we go the way of Greece. President Obama, for example, has convened an advisory deficit commission due to make its report later this year; it might well include some discussion of raising the retirement age.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a reasonable point in the course of distancing herself from Boehner's comments. "Around here, there's not a lot of outdoor work or heavy lifting, but for some people it is... 70 means something different to them."

Indeed, some people are physically worn out by their 60s. And of course, millions of people in their 60s -- or in some cases, even younger -- are beginning to suffer the debilities of Alzheimer's Disease (AD), which can make even office work impossible.

So if we want to keep people in the workforce longer, maybe we should figure out how to keep everyone healthier. That's a winning solution, all the way around. Obviously there's a lot that people can do for themselves, in terms of diet and exercise, but there's a lot that science and industry must do, as well. Even the most health-conscious of us can be stricken with AD, or cancer, or myriad other diseases that prematurely sicken, incapacitate, and kill. AD, for which we have no cure, costs the country $170 billion a year -- and the cost is rising fast, further pushing our entitlements costs upward toward disastrous levels.

So it's sound strategy to think of ways to prevent those costs from piling up, by dealing with the disease ex ante, as opposed to simply paying for the costs ex post facto.

Last year in The Huffington Post, Lou Weisbach and Dr. Richard Boxer, co-founders of the American Center for Cures Initiative, argued for a cure strategy. That is, a genuine paradigm shift in the way we think about healthcare. Yes, financing damage control (treating disease) is morally worthy and politically necessary, but financing damage prevention (preventing the disease) is a smarter, and ultimately more compassionate strategy. As Weisbach and Boxer put it:

If you believe that it's unacceptable that the percentage of Americans dying of cancer has not significantly changed since 1950. If you believe it's unacceptable that no major non-infectious diseases have been reliably, consistently cured in your lifetime. If you believe that the promise of a new cure on your news show never seems to happen. Then demand change. Our representatives in Washington work for us and are spending our money. On behalf of more than the 110 million Americans currently afflicted with disease, demand change. On behalf of our families, demand change. Let all members of the House and Senate know that there cannot be a comprehensive solution to heath care without dealing with the underlying root problem, disease. Demand that the American Center for Cures initiative be at the forefront of health care reform legislation.

Weisbach and Boxer are thus pointing us toward a better way. We don't need partisan conflict on entitlement issues, instead we need a renewed commitment to research on medical cures. And if we get that commitment, not only will be healthier, but we will save money on entitlements, as well. Indeed, if history is any guide, in the course of finding cures to diseases such as AD, we will create a new industry or two along the way.

In the case of healthcare, the downward spiral toward the lowest common denominator leads to both death and bankruptcy. And so yes, we do need to think of a better approach. In her 1994 book, The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul, Arianna Huffington urged us to reach farther than mere survival, farther than sexuality, farther than the quest for power. She urged us to reach for what she called the "highest common denominator," and thereby "overcome alienation and achieve community." A better world.

That was a great idea then, and it's an even greater idea now. And a cure strategy would be a great place to begin establishing that highest common denominator.

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