The economy is passing a kidney stone. Here's one man's guide to survival.


Anyway, that’s the story. Here’s the moral, or two, or three.

Do you want to know what my honest-to-God first thought was when the pain got manageable enough to be able to hold a thought? I tell you: I thought of John McCain. And I’ll tell you what hit me the hardest: not his pain lasted for five years when mine lasted for four hours. But to add to that raw fear, lying in filth and knowing that those footsteps in the hall would bring not relief but more pain . . . my God! When I think about those men on those fields from Bunker Hill to Baghdad, lying there for hours, awaiting rescue and relief that often simply never came . . . I end up — and I don’t expect any of you to actually believe this — I end up grateful for those few hours.

Here was my second thought: I would like to kiss the hand of those evil, greedy, horrible KKKorporations that made and tested Demerol and Dilaudid and the ultrasound sensor and clean needles and sterile IV bags and all the rest of it. I know they’re the villains of courtroom novels and Michael Moore movies and thus are wicked, greedy, soulless Nazis — but if I met a single one of them I would kiss their hands and feet in gratitude. And it did not elude me, when that blinding light finally went out and I felt good again, that my Moral Superiors who protest and vilify these companies at every turn have not — in point of fact — ever done a single thing to relieve my pain or anyone else’s. Nor could any of those murdering, Seventh-century barbarians we are fighting do so much as carve a block of wood to look like that ultrasound sensor. No, pain has been here forever, and when you strip all the plasma TV’s and jet travel and iPhones away you are left with the brass tacks: It takes civilization to remove pain, and Western Civilization to actually fix what’s causing it, more often than not. And that is another thing I try never to forget. And I had a final thought . . .

I’ll not only admit I don’t know anything about this financial mess . . . I’ll swear to it. All I hear is some people muttering that a few nights ago, the Angel of Death passed over the land and would have slain us all if a few priests had not, at the last minute, run out and splashed red ink around the doorways of our homes.

My dad suffered from kidney stones his whole life. When I was very young, in the mid-sixties, he would be gone for ten days and return with a scar that ran from near his navel, around almost to his spine: a nine-inch incision, a quarter-inch wide, and with little white dots marking where he had been sewn up with football laces, apparently. It was like he had been operated on with an axe. He suffered horribly. And yet, the only time I ever saw that man cry was when he talked about the Depression, and how it felt to watch your neighbors eat out of garbage cans.

I don’t want that experience. Just about any remedy, no matter how horrible, would be better than that. But I have re-negotiated my new job to include health insurance. Why today and not three years ago? Because I just came through a world of hurt. I don’t ever want to go through that again.

And this is my concern about the $700 billion kidney stone the economy is trying to pass. It seems to me that if we are going to change behaviors then the people who got us into this mess need to feel a little pain. If the hospital was handing out free Dilaudid every day my first question would be “what time do you guys open?” I’d pass 50 kidney stones a day if I could get to play with the unicorns instead of suffering for it.

Every decision we make is based on a risk/reward calculation. If we take away the consequences of risky behavior, we will see more of it. And if there’s a money-back guarantee for greedy and stupid decisions, we’re in real trouble, because there is only so much money in the bank but supplies of greed and stupidity are endless.

So how do we inflict some badly-needed pain on people who need to feel it, without hurting the rest of the good and honest folks who pay their bills responsibility? Well, there are three simple rules that we must follow. Unfortunately, no one knows what those three rules are. So here we are. I’m as flummoxed as the rest of you.

I will say this, though: half way through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had a plan to buy the slaves. He would give the south a chance to end the war early by compensating them — with Northern cash — for the market value of the slaves that they held. It was a monstrous sum, but he thought it was necessary. So he wrote: “Certainly it is not so easy to pay something as to pay nothing; but it is easier to pay a large sum than it is to pay a larger one. And it is easier to pay any sum when we are able, than it is to pay before we are able.”

My own irresponsibility got me looking at 50 years of age without health insurance. I’m going to owe that hospital about two grand for this adventure. If you think I won’t miss that two grand, then you have over-estimated the financial value of internet punditry. But it’s my obligation; it’s my debt. I owe it and I’ll pay it, and I’ll try to remain focused on the fact that it could have been much, much worse. It was only that pain that got me to change my ways.

Is that too much to ask of this mess? That from whatever pain we have to endure, we can perhaps learn enough from it so that we don’t go through this again?

– Bill Whittle lives and works in Los Angeles.


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