Wednesday, June 17, 2009

International Negro : Episode 1 - Is Socialism Really That Bad?!?

[Editor's Note: I grappled with how to best blog about my recent 10 day trip to Europe, and the various eye-opening experiences encountered. So, in an effort to mimic my homegirl Thembi's excellent Big, Black, & Nappy In The Persian Gulf series, I present to you a limited edition, infrequently running, and likely pointless special called International Negro.]

Part of my recent trip took me through Scandinavia, with stops in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, four countries which all have some form of that dreaded 9 letter word motherf... "Socialism". This term has become synonymous with ruthless gubb'ment power that will eventually run all car companies, determine when and where you can get your teeth cleaned, where to cap your salary, and even how many children you can have. At the root of this power grab is an increased rate of taxation, which essentially steals from "hardworking Americans" (note: is there any such "work" that isn't "hard"? I'd sure like to see it.) in favor of "spreading the wealth". Naturally, I find this notion silly, and little more than fear mongering from a party that did jack squat to remedy issues like healthcare when it had its chance.

[Editor's Note: What follows is a somewhat hazy recollection of personal convos with average citizens, noisy open top tour bus guides, and some followup work via Google. When you visit 7 countries in 10 days, stuff starts to sound alike after awhile. If you need more specifics, search for them on your own time.]

I will freely admit that I don't like paying more taxes. Does anyone? In some countries with a progressive income tax model (ie: Denmark) you get dinged an astounding %65 on all income over certain levels (ie: $90,000/year). In Finland, the uniform rate of taxation is around %50, regardless of income. This sounds ludicrous, and well, it is.

But what do you get in return for all this taxation? Universal healthcare that's among the best in the world. All the BS you hear about people "dying while waiting for service" is little more than propaganda. Service is prompt and thorough. The average life expectancy in Sweden is 80.74 years, which is freakin' astounding, and 5 years beyond that of the US. Scandinavian countries trump the US in virtually every quantifiable health statistic, including things like infant mortality rates. The 2008 Global Peace Index survey ranks Denmark as the second most peaceful country in the world, after Iceland. Yeah, I know some of this is apples and oranges, but it's still food for thought.

Secondary education is completely paid for, with all meals included for free. Tuition to public four year colleges is also free, although you must of course get accepted. Private schools are also an option if you're willing to pay. Literacy rates are astounding (98%). Education, across the board, is generally considered far superior to that available in the States.

Your money also pays for such forms of energy as wind and solar, which are already in heavy use. Windmills and turbines dotted the countryside of ever city we visited. Does this foresight equal cheaper gas? No, their gas in many places was roughly the same cost as here. But perhaps this does lead to better environmental conditions which add to the overall quality of life, and of course, average life expectancy. Unemployment is low. Free trade abounds. When you do lose your job, unemployment benefits pay a full 90% of your former wages. Of course, you'll need the money. In Oslo, the cost of living is about 30% higher than in the United States and 25% higher than the United Kingdom. A cup of coffee is about $10 USD. An extra value meal at Burger King costs about $25. Peep my Norwegian Pinata Whopper meal which, with nacho chips, salsa, cheese, and jalapenos was just as nasty as it sounds. Yeah, I needed an HerbLax afterward, but hey, you can't get that in the States. Yet.

Sure $25 bones for a burger and fries sounds exorbitant, but of course, a fry cook at this same BK makes about $30 an hour, so I guess it's all relative.

To be honest, much of what I observed about European style socialism was gleaned from natives who were all too happy to rub the superiority of their countries in the face of a naive American. And the fact is American culture is so heavily embedded in materialism, me-first attitudes, rank capitalism, and vastly different definitions of "success" and "happiness". All the countries I visited are far smaller than the US (Sweden has fewer people than New York City), have different historical legacies (think: Russia, which had all these countries on lock at some point in time), different demographics, and aren't trying to introduce all this at once. Simply put, this is a way of life for them, they are born into it. They don't complain about taxes. Seriously, of the dozens of folks I casually chatted with on my trip, not a single one complained, they all trumpeted the virtues of what their money bought them.

But then again, it's not like Obama is trying to turn America into Norway. He's simply saying let's find ways of covering those who don't have healthcare by either making it more affordable, or making it free. He isn't raising taxes (not yet, anyway), and isn't telling folks already covered that the gubb'ment is going to determine where they can get a pap smear. If you have coverage, you can keep it. If you don't, they'll make it available. Is this really such a bad thing? Seriously? Would I mind paying another 1-2% in federal taxes if I knew it was going specifically to this cause, a cause that helps others? All things considered, when you think about the fact that 60% of all personal bankruptcies are due to staggering medical bills, I'd probably be okay with that. Then again, it's easy for me to say that because I'm gainfully employed. On the flipside, most of the folks bellyaching about paying for healthcare for the uninsured actually have insurance already. I'm just sayin'.

And since we're on the whole "spread the wealth" thing, why all the furor now? We "spread wealth" when federal taxes pay for public schools. We "spread wealth" to foreign nations with financial support, weapons, food, and military support to peacefully maintain our superpower status and keep fools in check. We "spread wealth" through a form of universal healthcare that's already been in place for decades called Medicaid. Heck, we already cover kids with SCHIP. Why not cover their parents?

Again, this is why providing some variation of healthcare (I wouldn't call it universal or single payer) doesn't exactly have me pissing my pants with anger. Seriously, why is covering folks who can't cover themselves (for whatever reason) with adequate care such a bad thing?

I don't think this will happen without consequence. As a guy who's done consulting for both the gubb'ment at healthcare providers, I can tell you that both are rife with waste, fraud, and dysfunction. There will certainly be some bumps in the road, and lots of money burned. But what's the solution? Tax cuts? Tax cuts don't help sh*t if you don't have a job and can no longer afford COBRA. If you're broke, and can't find a job, you can't afford WORM, eff a COBRA, and eff' a tax cut.

I know Obama will have his work cut out for him to get this passed, but I admire his drive to do something for the least of those, a "least" that seems to be growing by the day. You can call this Socialism if you'd like, but I'd prefer Compassion.

Question: Is "Socialism" really such a bad thing, or is it merely a matter of perspective? Is Obama putting a watered-down version of Socialism in place, or is this little more than GOP bellyaching?

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