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Quick Takes: America is NOT So Great

Ralph Seliger
December 29, 2017

by Ralph Seliger

IT FRUSTRATES me when politicians, including Democrats, feel obliged to intone how the U.S. is the “greatest country in the world.” The one notable exception on the 2016 campaign trail was Bernie Sanders, who looked toward Western social democracies — explicitly mentioning Denmark but clearly implying most countries in Western and Central Europe, as well as key public polices in Canada, Australia and New Zealand — as models for the U.S. to emulate.

Until the 1980s, I would have added Israel to this list; it still handles medical care more equitably than we do, but stopped qualifying as a social-democratic welfare state within the Green Line at some point after the Likud first took power in 1977. Interestingly, an Israeli political economist, Prof. Daniel Gutwein, regards the subsidies incentivizing Jewish Israelis to settle in the West Bank as a politically-calibrated replacement for the welfare state.

David Plotz of the Slate podcast, “The Political Gabfest,” connects listeners to a succession of Tweets by Alison Gerber @AlisonKGerber , an American residing in Sweden who recounts the great experiences she’s had with the Swedish medical system and child care services. She begins cheekily:

So I’m an American living in Sweden, the socialist nanny-state hellscape of the GOP’s fantasies. Here’s what it’s like to live in a country with a high effective tax rate and a commitment to spending for the common good.

I don’t worry that a minor accident, illness, or other bump in the road will derail my family’s future or mean that we lose everything. We have excellent health care and social insurance, and the state steps up when we are in a crisis.

Also recommended by Plotz is an article in a publication called “Eudaimonia”: “What Do You Call a World That Can’t Learn From Itself?” (subtitled “Why Don’t Americans Understand How Poor Their Lives Are?”) by a policy wonk named Umair Haque.

To my mind, Haque exaggerates a bit in his first few paragraphs, but we do rank poorly in health and other quality-of-life statistics in comparison with many European and other countries with advanced economies. Similarly, our public infrastructure and services are in dire need of repair and expansion. Consider the state of our railways, whether commuter lines or subways or our almost nonexistent long-haul trains. Consider the mounting insecurities of our labor force, with long-term jobs increasingly rare as union protections and secure pensions largely become a thing of the past. Here’s a taste of his article:

. . . Americans enjoy lower qualities of life on every single indicator that you can possibly think of. Life expectancy in France and Spain is 83 years, but in America it’s only 78 years . . . . The same is true for things like maternal mortality, stress, work and leisure, press freedom, quality of democracy — every single thing you can think of that impacts how well, happily, meaningfully, and sanely you live is worse in America . . . . There is a myth of exceptionalism in America that prevents it from looking outward, and learning from the world. . . . .

I have never once [seen] in America a leader saying, “Hey! See that British healthcare system? That German union and pension system? Why don’t we propose that? They work!!” . . .

He is forgetting Sanders, but the Senator from Vermont is unusual.

The writer goes on to observe that many Europeans don’t appreciate how good they have it either, and support the kind of xenophobic and chauvinistic rightwing that has helped propel Donald Trump to power.

The irony of Trump’s populist appeal is that he’s wedded himself to the Republican small-government/pro-corporate philosophy, exactly the opposite of what we increasingly need. Aside from the infrastructure spending that he’s promised but not yet delivered on, we need a larger role for government in health care (freed as much as possible from the constraints of the corporate insurance and pharmaceutical industries), and in education.

Shortly after the 2016 elections, I wrote on the failure of Obama and Democrats in general to extol the virtues and necessity of “Big Government” to counteract the powerful Republican litany for smaller government (“Earth to Democrats: Re-embrace Big Government Liberalism” ). We’ve now fallen back further in this ideological struggle. Furthermore, no politician that I know of is raising the possibility of a guaranteed minimum income for Americans who face a growing scarcity of jobs in an increasingly automated and robotized economy.

Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.