One of the classic exercises I train my students with in the Industrial Design Clinic is what one might call ‘scale estimation.’ What I’ve found is that when we teach kids about how to solve various engineering problems, almost always there’s a complex algorithm – a step-by-step solution process – that they’re supposed to follow. These aren’t simple at all. We devote whole classes to figuring out stress in beams, or temperatures inside of boilers.

If the students blindly follow the algorithms, they far too often make mistakes. And those mistakes often yield hilarious results, like declaring that a match produces 1 million BTUs of heat. For perspective, if you burn a cubic foot of natural gas, you get around 1,000 BTUs. We laugh and laugh.

And then I go back and give them lessons in scale. “If you want to guess, think in terms of what you’re familiar with.” Instead of horsepower (who has a horse nowadays?) think in terms of car engines, or table saws. Or angle grinders. By getting students to apply the number of angle grinders to shape a piece of metal, they can get a better idea of the power required to perform an operation.

Most importantly, it gives them agency to know when the algorithm, or someone else, is trying to pull a fast one on them. The technical term I use is ‘grounding validity.’ It’s a little more profound than ‘common sense’ – but it’s the same general idea. When students approach me with the results of a calculation that is positively silly, I do my best John Turturro imitation, and tell them ‘that don’t make no sense!’

That’s what we really need to start doing, as a society, with our current debate on single-payer/Medicare for All health care. It absolutely drives me crazy to hear the various voices on the right say “as a society, we cannot afford government-funded health care.” This is the equivalent of the 1-million BTU match. Validity grounding says we already pay for health care, and we pay for it when we receive it. And without a tragic backdrop, we mostly don’t go into debt for it.

We can guess the size of any health care economy by counting buildings in a city. Go to Boise and count stories in multi-level hospitals. Even if you multiply by various ‘expense’ factors, Boise isn’t dominated by hospitals.

And of course, we could get over our American-centricism, and look overseas and see societies that have far better health care, for cheaper. Usually about half the cost.

A deeper, and potentially darker reason why we keep our current health care system is because there’s an enormous, profitable private hierarchy that parasitically makes money off the needs of Americans. And it’s not just typical Republican corporate welfare. Both parties are bought into this corruption. Obama even said this, alluding to the loss of 2 million jobs or so if, instead of us going to Obamacare, we went to Medicare for All.

What this really means is that health insurance is currently a huge, crazy, private/socialist make-work racket. It’s so huge, you get to pick the ideology you hate the most. While some may argue that Medicare for All might also be socialist in nature, it would cost about half what the current system does. And everyone would never have to worry about getting adequate care. Job mobility would improve, and entrepreneurial behavior would be encouraged. Imagine deciding to start a new business and not having to worry about health care.

Regardless how all this plays out, dismiss that notion that paying for health care through single payer/Medicare for All is something the nation can’t afford.

Count your table saws, floors on buildings, or angle grinders – whatever you need to do to ground yourself in reality. Because the deep reality is we need single payer/Medicare for All as soon as we can get it.

Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.

Recommended for you