Whenever I write about U.S. politics, people ask me "Don't you have any good news?" (Unless the Republicans are in power, in which case people ask me "Who are you going to vote for?") But I do have good news, boatloads of good news, if Americans want to hear it.
If a city or state next to yours were to achieve a dramatic breakthrough for democratic representation, environmental sustainability, healthcare, education, peace, or justice, wouldn't that be good news? Wouldn't you trumpet that news where you live and demand the same of your elected officials?
When the United States gets something right nationally, and even when we don't, we're happy to assume that others around the world would like to imitate it. Some of us think bombs are the best way to help them do so. Others prefer diplomacy. But we all pretty much believe in sharing our wisdom.
But what if another country, or a large block of other countries, were to solve the most vexing problems facing the United States? What if they were to show us a general outline of how we could fix all the troubles that most trouble us?
Well, that would, of course, be an affront to denounce, ignore, and avoid. Unless our pining after good news were to outweigh our xenophobic pride and we were to become open to accepting the gifts of some of that non-American 95 percent of humanity.
If that happens, the first place we should look is Europe, and our guide should be Steven Hill's brilliant and comprehensive new book "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age."
The European Union (EU) is the world's largest and most competitive economy, and most of those living in it are wealthier, healthier, and happier than most Americans. Europeans work shorter hours, have a greater say in how their employers behave, receive lengthy paid vacations and paid parental leave, can rely on guaranteed paid pensions, have free or extremely inexpensive comprehensive and preventative healthcare, enjoy free or extremely inexpensive educations from preschool through college, impose half the per-capita environmental damage of Americans, endure a fraction of the violence found in the United States, imprison a fraction of the prisoners locked up here, and benefit from democratic representation, engagement, and civil liberties unimagined in the land where we're teased that the world hates our rather mediocre "freedoms." Europe even offers a model foreign policy, bringing neighboring nations toward democracy by holding out the prospect of EU membership, while we drive other nations away from good governance at great expense of blood and treasure.
What wonderful news! And yet, how many times during the Great Health Insurance Reform Debate did anyone take a look at the wheels already invented in Europe, where single-payer systems and systems built around non-profit insurance companies and price controls out-perform the for-profit U.S. system in every way? We would rather suffer more and die sooner than learn from people who live across an ocean, even if they learned a lot from us, even if we imposed structures on them a half-century ago that would have benefitted us as well.
Of course, this WOULD all be good news, if not for the extreme and horrible danger of higher taxes! Working less and living longer with less illness, a cleaner environment, a better education, more cultural enjoyments, paid vacations, and governments that respond better to the public -- that all SOUNDS nice, but the reality involves the ultimate evil of higher taxes! Or does it?
As Hill points out, Europeans do pay higher income taxes, but they generally pay lower state, local, property, and social security taxes. (They also pay those higher income taxes out of a larger paycheck.) And what Europeans keep in earned income they do not have to spend on healthcare or college or job training or numerous other expenses that are hardly optional but that we seem intent on celebrating our privilege to personally pay for.
If we pay roughly as much as Europeans in taxes, why do we have to pay for everything we need on our own, in addition? Why don't our taxes pay for our needs? The primary reason is that so much of our taxes goes to wars and the military. Recently much of it also goes to Wall Street and corporate bailouts. And this is not entirely new. In a given year, our government gives roughly $300 billion in tax breaks to businesses for their employee health benefits. That's enough to actually pay for everyone in this country to have healthcare, but it's just a fraction of what we dump into the for profit system that, as its name suggests, exists primarily to generate profits. Most of what we waste on this madness does not go through the government, a fact of which we are inordinately proud.
Europe is not perfection, and indeed has much to learn from us. Notably, we are ahead of Europe in confronting the endless menace of racism and nativism. Europe faces many dangers, but any lamented little steps its nations take in an American direction on taxes and benefits are relative to the great distance that separates us. Even were Europe to implode tomorrow, which seems far less likely than the United States doing so, it would have shown us the basic model for a more just and sustainable capitalist society in which wealth is more equitably distributed and most people are happier, less stressed, and less prone to severe frustration or violence.
The key to this, as Hill demonstrates, is a deeper and richer democracy in which workers share seats with owners on councils overseeing corporations, children's assemblies propose new laws to legislatures, everyone is automatically registered to vote, proportional representation allows more voices to be heard, free media is provided to campaigns (and newspapers and independent public media subsidized), and campaigns are financed by the public -- using some of those hated taxes that we prefer to bestow on weapons makers and bankers.
Of course, when I say "we prefer" I'm being tongue-in-cheek. The point is that Americans, in polls and surveys, would prefer to move much of our money from the military and bailouts to human needs. The problem is primarily that our views are not represented in our government, as this anecdote from "Europe's Promise" suggests:
"A few years ago, an American acquaintance of mine who lives in Sweden told me that he and his Swedish wife were in New York City and, quite by chance, ended up sharing a limousine to the theatre district with then-U.S. Senator John Breaux from Louisiana and his wife. Breaux, a conservative, anti-tax Democrat, asked my acquaintance about Sweden and swaggeringly commented about 'all those taxes the Swedes pay,' to which this American replied, 'The problem with Americans and their taxes is that we get nothing for them.' He then went on to tell Breaux about the comprehensive level of services and benefits that Swedes receive in return for their taxes. 'If Americans knew what Swedes receive for their taxes, we would probably riot," he told the senator. The rest of the ride to the theater district was unsurprisingly quiet."