Monday, December 27, 2010

The Country You Have

You no doubt remember Rumsfeld’s now famous comment, “you go to war with the army you have” (not, that is, with the army you might want to have). This was really pretty stupid at the time as we did not have to go to war at all, could have avoided it altogether, or could have waited until we had a better army if we had had better judgment. Anyway, I have been wondering about our country. Do we have to live with the country we have, or could we change it for the better? I guess I was inspired to think of this again because of an interesting article on AlterNet, “America in Decline: Why Germans Think we’re Insane.”

Among other things this article points out that Germany spends 9% on health care, compared with our 15%, and manages to have universal converage. In the U.S. we have 59 million people with no health care, 132 million with no dental care, and 60 million with no sick leave. In Germany they have a paid annual leave, paid sick leave, and paid maternal leave. While we have 10% unemployment (really probably 20%) and unemployment insurance that runs out, German unemployment benefits never run out, nor do the unemployed have to do without health care. Thus the Germans are somewhat horrified by our situation and tend to think we must be insane.

It is not just Germany that has things much better than we do with respect to their lives. For example, in terms of reading literacy, American 15 year-olds are 14th in the world. In math they are 25th in the world, and in science, 17th. We are 33rd when it comes to infant mortality and 37th in health care. These are figures I found randomly searching the web, they were not selected to deliberately make us look bad. If you want to look further it is not hard to see that if these figures are not precisely true, there is no doubt they are in general pretty true.

So why is America in decline, and can anything be done about it? It is possible, no doubt, to increase our standing vis-à-vis education, but it would take more money and more effort and probably a drastic change in American attitudes towards learning and education in general. But it could perhaps be done because we could explain that as we become less competitive we would not be able to make more money. As education in America has already taken on the idea that the only point of it is to make more money, this might not be such a hard sell. But significant changes in health care are not an easy sell, as our recent bout on the subject makes clear. Similarly, unemployment benefits are also virtually impossible as our recent attempts on that score clearly attest. This is so because Americans have been conditioned to violent fits of insanity at the very mention of the word “socialism.” The fact that Germany and some of the Scandinavian countries have perfectly viable economies under forms of “democratic socialism” does not seem to register here. Indeed, any suggestion that we are thinking of “Europeanizing” is met by outright derision. It is true that universal health benefits, free university education, and unemployment benefits have to be paid for with substantial taxes on most everyone, but you might notice there are still very wealthy people in Germany and other countries. It’s true some could be even more wealthy if they followed our lead and provided socialism only for the small minority at the top. Apparently their wealthy are not as greedy as ours. These countries learned long ago that market capitalism left unattended eventually leads to disaster. They are not petrified at the mere mention of Marx, Polanyi, socialism, or even communism.

So, my question is, do we have to live with the country we have? Perhaps more importantly, is it really the country we want to have? Do we really want to throw our unemployed citizens to the wolves (as the 99ers, for example). Do we really want vast numbers of our citizens to lack adequate health care? Maternity leaves? Decent vacations? Do we really want large numbers of our children going hungry day by day, living in poverty? There are reasons we are in decline, they have to do with what are primitive ideas of Social Darwinism, Capitalism, Privatization, a kind of frontier mentality that has not kept up with changing conditions. When one man with a chain saw can do the work of the ten it took previously, when one farmer with machinery can produce enough food for 100 others, when robots replace factory workers, and so on, there is inevitably going to be a problem with unemployment, surplus populations. We can take our cues from other nations that have attempted to deal with these basic problems and try to create a better system for all, or we can cling to our inhumane doctrine of “let only the strong survive” (strong now being merely a euphemism for the wealthy). I fear the Germans are right about us, we are insane. Denying health care to millions, ignoring education, denying unemployment benefits, tolerating poverty, while giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires at the same time, these are all measures of our madness, as well as symptoms of our decline.

“But the brilliance, the versatility of madness is akin to the resourcefulness of water seeping through, over and around a dike.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

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