Europe’s Promise

In the concluding chapter of Europe’s Promise by Stephen Hill the author describes a conversation that he has with a native Austrian in a Salzburg cafe.

“As an American, I wonder if you can even imagine what it must be like to live in a country where every person has health care. And a decent retirement. And day care, parental leave, sick leave, education, vacation, job retraining. for every plumber, carpenter, taxi driver, waitress, executive, sales clerk, scientist, musician, poet, nurse, of all ages, income, race, sex, whatever, not worrying about those basic arrangements. Can you imagine what that is like?”

At first I didn’t see where he was going with this. He spoke with such passion to point out the obvious. But then suddenly the lightbulb went on. I had never really thought about it before: what impact does it have on an individual’s psyche–and by extension on all of society and our feeling of extended family, which is after all the “sticky glue” that holds us all together–to know that certain basics will always be taken care of because you are a stakeholding member of that society, entitled to certain benefits? Certainly it is hard for an American, raised as an atomized individual in the “ownership” (i.e., “on your own”) society to step into the shoes of a European and imagine what that sense of security and support must feel like and how it affects your overall outlook.
“In America you are so rich” he said. “Why don’t you have these things for your people?”

We are watching yet another slipping away of health care reform, for the simple reason that a single Republican has replaced the former Senator of Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy’s Democratic seat in the U.S. Senate. This lowers the Democratic majority from 60% to 59% and yet the Democrats refuse to override arcane rules of their own chamber to push through a health care reform bill. Europe is so far ahead of us in health care and other basic life support, that we are beginning to look more like a third-rate country. With the current state of health care we really are a third-rate country; paying double for health outcomes that put us somewhere below Slovenia.

Hill’s book describes several differences in European outlook and institutions:
1. Health care, shorter work-weeks, double vacation times, paid day-care, paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave, national retirement plans that pay double or triple what our social-security system pays … , no-cost or very low cost university education.
2. Mandatory worker representation on corporate boards. (Europe has 170 Fortune 500 companies compared with 140 in the U.S.)
3. Publicly financed election campaigns. Proportional representation in their legislatures with multiple parties combining in coalitions. There are no “safe seats”, or gerrymandered districts. Senators cannot hold entire political agendas hostage while they lobby for perks that enrich their own state, or more likely their corporate contributors. And of course our congress and many government officials already have a government health-care plan.
4. A ten year or more advance on energy policy. (20% of Germany’s energy production will be renewable by 2015).
5. An order-of-magnitude narrower gap between the lowest wage earner and the highest salary earner.
The book gives voice to the uneasy notion that after the disaster of the Bush/Cheney years, the Obama revival is petering out. Maybe it never got started after Obama backed down on virtually every campaign promise and every opportunity for real reform.
I’m asking myself, how bad does it have to get?
After Hurricane Katrina, I thought we will definitely fix the bureaucratic policies and bungling so that New Orleans will be rebuilt.
After the bank bailouts, I thought we would definitely re-regulate the banks, re-separating investment banking from retail banking. A reasonable person might have expected that the notion of multi-million dollar bonuses for staff of bailed out banks would be considered an obscenity, and that banks would be required to restructure predatory mortgage loans.
After the collapse of the auto industry, you might think we’d start to re-think the stupid tax incentives that created the SUV, that we’d begin taxing gasoline at a reasonable rate to incentivize people to buy more efficient vehicles and to subsidize new technology, and that we’d install new management in the Detroit Big Three, (or, frankly, retool the idle factories to create mass-transit vehicles, solar cells, and windmills). After all the taxpayer “bought” those factories.
I thought maybe we’d throw in the towel in Afghanistan and Iraq and begin to re-think our failed military strategy and the whole purpose of spending ever-increasing billions each year on a military, where we can’t even field more than a couple hundred thousand soldiers, at a million dollars per year at a pop.
I thought we’d close the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. Surely this is one of the most medieval legacies of the Bush/Cheney years, and it is a disgrace.
The very good news, however, is that Europe’s Promise points out, with dozens of examples, how a very complex multi-cultural society can achieve consensus and create a better life for ordinary citizens. Having lived in both Europe in Canada in years past, and with regular contact with family in the “old country”, I agree that life there seems much as described in the book, and that there are many elements that should be included in a 21st century version of the American Dream.

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