29 August 2010

A case study; European social system vs. USA

I've mentioned here before Steven Hill's really excellent book, Europe's Promise. See this link. It is frankly a polemic, without pretense of being anything else. It's designed to convince the reader that the European sociopolitical/economic system he terms social capitalism is inherently superior to our system and that we should move towards adopting most of its features in order to improve not only the quality of our lives, but, even, the competitiveness and functionality of our economy. Still, it is thoroughly documented with facts. Some of these facts are not so well known in the US, where it's fashionable (albeit stupid and ignorant) to think of Europe as uncompetitive, marginal, overbureaucratized, and a socialist mess, not like the land of opportunity, USA. Things like codetermination, flexicurity, works councils, and just how much in services we have to pay for out of pocket that Europeans receive in exchange for their (yes, somewhat higher) taxes.

Here's just one case study involving actual acquaintances of his he uses  (Ibid., 88-89) to show just how differently similar events can impact the lives of people living in Europe (Switzerland, in this case, which doesn't even have all the EU mandated social policies in place), vs. the US:

A Swiss professional, who had been an accountant for 25 years, suddenly found himself unemployed and encountering more than usual difficulty finding a new job. While collecting his ~70% of salary unemployment, he was accidentally injured, requiring extensive (and expensive) knee surgery with complications and an eleven-month recuperation. The medical care including extensive physical therapy: no out of pocket cost. Continued to receive unemployment until after full recovery, whereupon he got a new high paying job and resumed his career, all with no serious disruption of his standard of living. He told Hill: "I would not even try to think about what would happen in the U.S.[...]"

Another friend of Hill's in the US, Doug, did have a similar experience. At 49, he was diagnosed with a common congenital heart defect requiring open heart valve surgery. He did have medical insurance (remember, 47 million, including many many working people, still don't: they become medically bankrupt and ruined financially when this happens). Even with health insurance, Doug had thousands of dollars in unreimbursed medical expenses. Plus there were complications keeping out of work longer than planned. His meager savings were nearly exhausted. The minimal disability check from his employment only lasted part of the time, and was barely enough so he could keep in housing and make his car payment. He lost the job as a result of being out so long. After the disability ran out, his car was repossessed, so that when he finally was ready to go back to work, he had no transportation to look for work and was essentially dead broke.

These two stories aren't identical instances, but they do illustrate important facts. As Hill puts it: "These kinds of gotchas and Catch 22s are all too common in America. Having no job and inadequate health care is not a place you want to end up in the good ol' USA."

So, what, really is going on here? At another point in the book, he cites an overheard exchange between a European and an American executive. The American accuses the European of that horrible dirty word in our country: socialism. The European says, "No, in Europe, we are capitalists. But in America, all you care about is making money, and there is a big difference."

Indeed there is. I wish I could somehow convince my fellow Americans, in the country I love and want to see better itself and be a leader in the World again, that we should not just feel bad about this.

We should not just accept the fact that our country has become inhumane, oligarchic, and just unquestionably less civilized than the old Europe we, just two generations ago, saved from the ruins of the complete collapse of its social order. We've become the land of a few very rich, where the ordinary working people are increasingly marginalized, facing declining living standards, declining educational levels, declining health and retirement security. We should take this as a challenge, roll up our sleeves, gather our mutual strength, and change our country, so that these kinds of negative comparisons no longer apply.

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