Representative Spencer Bachus is one of the only people I know from Alabama. I bet I'm the only socialist he knows. I'm certainly the only one the congressman from Birmingham could name after darkly claiming that there are 17 socialists lurking in the House of Representatives.
I doubt that there are any other socialists, let alone 17 more, in all of the Congress. I also respectfully doubt that Spencer Bachus understands much about democratic socialism. I hope this is an opportunity to shed some light on a viewpoint that deserves more attention throughout America and in our capital.
At its best, Washington brings people like us together to fight for our principles and work things out for the good of the country. Spencer and I used to serve together on the House Financial Services Committee. I don't mean to hurt him back home, but the truth is that he even cosponsored an amendment of mine once on credit card ripoffs.
At its worst, Washington is a place where name-calling partisan politics too often trumps policy. A standard refrain in John McCain's presidential stump speeches last fall was a claim that Barack Obama's Senate voting record was more liberal than Senate's only socialist, yours truly. That is nonsense on several levels. Even as political hyperbole, the attack didn't work out all that well for my colleague from Arizona.
Still, branding someone as a socialist has become the slur du jour by leading lights of the American right from Newt Gingrich to Rush Limbaugh. Some, like Mike Huckabee, intentionally blur the differences between socialism and communism, between democracy and totalitarianism. "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff," Huckabee told last winter's gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference.
If we could get beyond such nonsense, I think this country could use a good debate about what goes on here compared to places with a long social-democratic tradition like Sweden, Norway and Finland, where, by and large, the middle class has a far higher standard of living than we do.
I was honored last year to show Ambassador Pekka Lintu of Finland around my home state of Vermont. There was standing-room only at a town meeting where people came to hear more about one of the world's most successful economic and social models.
And what we learned impressed us. Finland is a country which provides high-quality health care to all of its people with virtually no out-of-pocket expense; where parents and their young children receive free excellent childcare and/or parental leave benefits which dwarf what our nation provides; where college and graduate education is free to students and where children in the public school system often record the highest results in international tests. In Finland, where 80 percent of workers belong to unions, all employees enjoy at least 30 days paid vacation and the gap between the rich and poor is far more equitable than in the United States.
One reason there was so much interest in the Finnish model was that even before Wall Street greed drove the world economy into a deep recession, more and more Americans were wondering why the very rich were becoming richer while our economy failed our working families. They wanted to know why the middle class was shrinking, poverty was increasing and the United States was the only major country without a national health care program.
Despite all the rhetoric about "family values," workers in the United States now work the longest hours of any people in a major country. Our health care system is disintegrating. At last count, 47 million Americans had no health insurance while we spend twice as much per capita on health care as any other nation.
We have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Our childcare system is totally inadequate. Too many of our kids drop out of school, and college is increasingly unaffordable. One of the results of how we neglect many of our children is that we end up with more people in jails and prisons than any other country on earth. There is a correlation between the highest rate of childhood poverty and the highest rate of incarceration.
Let's be clear. Finland is no utopia. Not so many years ago, it experienced a severe economic downturn. Its economy today is not immune to what is happening in the rest of the world. There also are, to be sure, important differences between the United States and Finland - a small country with a population of only 5.2 million people. Finland has a very homogenous population. We are extremely diverse. Finland is the size of Montana. We stretch 3,000 miles from coast to coast.
Despite the differences, there are important similarities. Both countries share many of the same aspirations for their people. When one thinks about the long march of human history, it is no small thing that democratic countries like Finland exist that operate under egalitarian principles, which have virtually abolished poverty, which provide almost-free, quality health care to all their people, and provide free, high-quality education from child care to graduate school.
Whether we live in Burlington, Vt. or Birmingham, Ala., we should be prepared to study and learn from the successes of social-democratic countries. Name-calling and scare tactics just won't do.