The Short End of The Socialist Stick

What we have is De Gaulle-style socialism (state-funded corporations, cronyism, an overstuffed military), but without free and decent French schools, doctors and trains.
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During the recent presidential campaign, accusations of socialism flew from the Republican camp, with Sarah Palin the chief warrior against an evil she had likely not heard of until, say, early September (and this would include her many years in college studying, yes, journalism). Democrats reacted as if they had been accused of burning the flag and the Obama camp bent over backwards to prove the "S" word did not apply to him. This was especially jarring for those of us who are products of 1970s Europe, when socialism was never a bad word, except, perhaps, when spat out sneeringly by Communist stalwarts and sundry members of the Marxist Revolutionary League (don't laugh, some of us voted for them in our high school elections). Indeed, to this day, Socialist and Social-Democratic parties remain in power throughout Europe, or at least as the main opposition.

The irony, of course, is that socialism recently crept into America just around the time everyone was either accusing someone of being a socialist, or defending himself from being a socialist. It came in the form of atrociously misguided bailouts for some of the most ineptly managed companies in the world, at a price tag of over $7,000 per household. Now, every greedy, bloated, pretense of a business is lining up, starting with GM, a joke disguised as a manufacturing entity that should have long ago been swallowed up by a competitor, filed for bankruptcy, or both.

Unfortunately for Americans, the Bush government, with the unsettling support of Barack Obama, only got a little bit of the socialist thing right: the part where mismanaged companies are propped up by taxpayer subsidies doled out by government operatives whose idea of running a business involves printing money, or wringing it out of lobbyists. Of course, subsidizing wildly inefficient businesses is exactly the type of socialism that Europe has moved away from, with occasional nationalistic hiccups, mostly in France (of course).

And although socialism has come to America, we are somehow no closer to enjoying universal health care, affordable education, and reliable public transportation. What we do have is De Gaulle-style socialism (state-funded corporations, cronyism, an overstuffed military), but without free and decent French schools, doctors and trains (OK, French trains are not free, but they work).

For this foolish circumstance, Republicans are not the only ones to blame: from their perspective, as long as the money flows to those who need it most (the wealthiest), they're cool; and with a bail-out primarily benefiting the financial industry's shareholders, subsidizing wealth is sure to continue. No, besides ourselves, those who need to take on some of the blame are surely the Democratic leaders, who are endlessly fearful of being accused of being Democrats. Fearful of opposing a bailout because they may be blamed if things go wrong (things have gone wrong, the bailout is a joke, and they will be blamed anyway, at least in this column). Fearful of supporting universal health care because they will be uncovered as communists. Fearful of reorganizing a bloated military because that means they hate our troops.

Democratic leaders deserve special scorn on the issue of universal health care. All the major presidential candidates shied away from it: not one of them campaigned for a Canadian or Western European-style single payer system; instead they cobbled together plans that differed only slightly, avoiding the hard questions, for instance how to enforce mandatory health insurance. Even as recent polls show that Americans are vastly in favor of government intervention in health care, even as the United States drastically outspends comparable nations on health care, even as American life expectancy is significantly lower than that of those same nations, even as people die every day for lack of medical care, Democratic leaders have decided that the country cannot afford universal health care, but can afford an extravagant bailout of the country's wealthiest and most inept shareholders and workers. Politicians with access to the very best, most expensive medical attention will tell you that the United States has the very best health care system in the world. That may well be the case, it's just too bad a vast majority of us do not have access to it. They will also paint a nightmarish portrait of Canadian and European health care, yet those of us who have had the opportunity to experience both systems will tell you that the experiences are eerily similar, just that in one case you pay directly for the privilege, and in the other you do not. That, of course, is for the many among us who are fortunate to have access to jobs that offer health care benefits, even if that means we are tethered to employers for that very reason, and yet are scared to death that our families will lose the precious lifeline that is health insurance if our jobs disappear. This does not apply, of course, to the tens of millions of Americans who are uninsured or underinsured: for them, health care consists of emergency rooms and self-medication. I don't think they would hate Canadian-style health care.

Other countries struggle with education as much as the United States. The inherent advantage that wealthier and better-educated families confer to their offspring remains a fact of life in Western Europe as it does in the US. However, the harrowing discrepancy that exists in the American financing of public schooling and the overall neglect of education are unique to this country. It is difficult to even begin to explain to people outside the United States that in some villages and townships there is so much money flowing from property taxes that laptops are included in a public education, but that in other tax districts teachers have to provide supplies paid out of their own pocket, or go without. Financing is not the only problem with American education: the dismissive attitude of most of the ruling class, whose own children attend some of the most expensive private schools in the world, also causes a deep neglect of public education. As for colleges, many of them remain institutions of impeccable learning, it's just that fewer and fewer students can afford to attend the private ones, which cost 76% of the median family income annually, and the public ones are, like their lower education peers, often poorly financed and managed. Again, it is not that the socialized education of many other Western countries is flawless, but the options are far more appealing for many of those in search of opportunities that are, if not equal, at least not so polarized. This also explains the growing flow of American students to overseas colleges, where they can secure an excellent education for far less money than in the United States.

The best evidence of where public transportation ranks in the United States' priorities is that it is a political issue usually only associated with finding homes for professional sports teams, as stadiums involve getting large numbers of people to and from a place in as short an amount of time as possible. Beyond that, few people seem to make the link between a vast array of financial, health and environmental ills and poor public transportation. Does it not occur to those complaining of high gas prices that if they had a proper alternative to driving, they would not have to spend money on gas? That those big, cheap exurban houses come with a massive transportation price tag? That the awful air that their children breathe is due to pollution from cars? That without government intervention, the comfortable, reliable, safe bullet trains, light rail networks and subways they enjoy when they visit Europe would be but a mirage? That $700 billion could buy a really, really nice 21st century transportation network in a metropolitan area or ten.

As for air transportation, there are only two things to know about it: rich people refuse to use US airlines (witness the auto industry executives who decided to drive 500 miles rather than fly commercial); and Mexico, for one, has better domestic air travel options than the United States (personal observation). Actually, pretty much every country in the world has better air travel options. Whether this has to do with the fact that most governments have some involvement in how airlines are run is unclear, but it's worth considering.

In fact, now that socialism has officially made it to America, there are many things that we can openly consider. Clearly, both parties are of the opinion that a bigger government is better, that public subsidies to private industry are the way to go, that we have more money than God, and that we are going to spend it. Now would seem like a good time to make sure that if money is spent, it is spent on things that will make us healthier, smarter and overall happier (no, we are not going to get $700 billion worth of red wine, but we can shoot for better health care, schools and transportation.) And in the process, we can make sure most of us do not get the short end of the socialist stick, the way we got the short-end of the capitalist stick.

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