In today’s Washington Post, ultra-conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer writes that Obama wants to make the U.S. like Europe. Some Americans like me who actually live in Europe don’t think that is necessarily a bad idea.
I think I have already made this point ad nauseum, but I will repeat myself: throughout continental Europe, health care is free and universal and there is no noticeable difference in quality to that in the U.S. Meanwhile, public transportation and infrastructure is very noticeably superior in Europe and crime rates are much lower. And imagine, with fewer vacation days and labor strikes, American workers are actually on par with their French counterparts in terms of productivity.
That doesn’t mean per se that I believe the European model to be superior, for I still prefer many aspects of the American system. The American legal system, believe it or not, has also provided for many consumer and workplace protections without having to resort to the costly and largely ineffectual governmental remedies offered in Europe. Nevertheless, if you look at the facts that Krauthammer lays out, it becomes pretty obvious that something is missing from the equation:
In the European Union, government spending has declined slightly, from 48 percent to 47 percent of GDP during the past 10 years. In the United States, it has shot up from 34 percent to 40 percent. Part of this explosive growth in U.S. government spending reflects the emergency private-sector interventions of a Republican administration. But the clear intent was to make the massive intrusion into the private sector temporary and to retreat as quickly as possible. Obama has radically different ambitions.
The spread between Europe and America in government-controlled GDP has already shrunk from 14 percent to 7 percent. Two terms of Obamaism and the difference will be zero.
Why is there only a seven percent spread between the two continents when (i) both personal income and sales taxes are considerably less in the U.S. and (ii) the U.S. government offers significantly fewer social services to its citizens? Furthermore, the U.S. spends, as a percentage of GDP per capita, less on foreign aid than any of the European member states. So where are American taxpayer dollars and indebtedness (we have increased spending while actually lower taxes) going? My guess is that the difference is mainly on defense spending. In other words, Krauthammer is totally missing the point.
There is not necessarily a conflict between an American and a European model. The problem is that Krauthammer, like many other conservatives, absurdly sees an ideological riff in the midst that unpatriotically questions American exceptionalism. But American exceptionalism itself is an absurd, imperialistic and ethnocentric myth. As Robert Palmer stated on last week’s Bill Moyer’s Journal,
Yeah, illusions I think about, first of all, about America’s essential goodness as an economic system. I don’t want to deny that there is goodness in our national character or in our economy and certainly not in democracy rightly understood. But the notion that we always get it right, my country, right or wrong — that somehow America is the noblest nation in the world, these are things that I’ve for a long time, been unable to believe. And I think a true patriot is one who loves his country.But as you do when you love something, you also have a lover’s quarrel with it. And that means that you stand on some other ground than simply the inherent 100 percent continuing goodness and validity of that which you love.
Thus, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong or harmful in taking what is best from, say, the European health care model and combining it with what works so much better in the American system. As a nation, we can surely hope that within that seven point spread our government is offering something of value other than a strong military to its citizens. Otherwise, without quality roads, public transportation, and universal health care, what would Krauthammer want the U.S. government to be like? One big military base? What have three Republican presidents and one Democrat president done with our money for the past 28 years?
Surely, if Americans pay significantly less taxes but its government spends almost the same as the Europeans, we can find ways to offer similar services more efficiently. Why must it be either or?