“our beloved welfare state”

When I visited England in 1996, fish and chips constituted at least a quarter of my diet. Though it was chilly out, we usually took our food out to eat it outside, in order to avoid paying the 17% VAT on food consumed inside a restaurant. According to an interview I heard on public radio recently (the name of the interviewee and the title of his book escapes me), income tax, estate tax, and so forth are all sky-high in Europe, but in return Europeans receive free medical care, schooling, and so forth. In one country (Norway?) the government pays new mothers the salary they previously earned for one year after the baby is born, and guarantee her job back afterwards. What’s-his-name, the interviewee, said there were big student protests in England after they tried to start charging $5000 per year tuition at Oxford or Cambridge, the student’s said that “our beloved welfare state” was in danger.
Thinking about this, I wonder if this is a good idea, a bad idea, okay for Europe but not for the U.S., or what. Personally, though it would be nice not ever to have to worry about….anything, I guess, I don’t think I would like this. I’ve gotten a lot of help from my family, but insofar as I’ve ever been somewhat self-sufficient, I’m proud of being able to take care of myself. To me, it feels good to be able take care of myself and my family. Also, of course, I like having more say in what happen with the money I earn, what I want to use it for, and it certainly feels a lot better to freely donate money to causes instead of having someone just take it and apportion it for me.
On the other hand, America seems to have a hard time getting health care etc. to people in need, and maybe giving up autonomy in return for making sure everyone gets what they need is worth it, I don’t know.
Another question I have is, why would people living under such a system ever do anything? It seems like there wouldn’t be any advantage to behaving responsibly or working hard or doing anything at all. There’s no question of trying to build a better life for yourself or your family, no need to work to make the world better, the government just does everything for you. The interview guy also said that religion is pretty much nonexistent in Europe, which really makes me wonder what people value in life, what gives life meaning.
Anyway, just some idle wonderings. I know there’s some people who know more about Europe than I do who frequent this blog, any insights into comparisons or contrasts between Europe and America would be appreciated!

3 Responses to ““our beloved welfare state””

  1. Jeff says:

    Well, I won’t pretend to be an expert on Europe, but I do live here. First, the interviewer…hmmm…saying that religion is almost non-existant is a bit nuts. I can tell you that in Germany religion is a major part of everyday life, in some ways, even greater than in the U.S. For example, everything is closed on Sunday, outside of cafes and convenience stores. They have many more observed religious holidays than the U.S., again, where everything closes. And, on a personal level, I know many people who are every bit as involved with their churches as people in the U.S. are. Maybe there are some European countries that are less religious, but compared to the U.S. I really can’t imagine a large difference.
    Second, on social issues, I have noticed and in some cases been a victim of the differences. What is particulary interesting to me is that Germans don’t complain about their high taxes. But, they can also see where the money goes. Everyone uses the health care system. Everyone uses the educational system. Gerhardt Schroeder has put himself in hot water and may lose the next election for charging student fees to college students. These fees add up to about 200 Euros a year. Most American students would cut off their right arm to only pay that much. Under his watch there is a new co-payment plan in place for health care. Every three months you have to pay 10 Euros. Horrible, huh? To Germans it is, and again, it may cost him his job.
    As far as incentives to work go. Well, they do exist. First, you don’t just get health care. You do have to work or study. Yes, there is a plan for the unemployed, but it’s not automatic and there are different levels of health cares services. For example, with a good job you can “buy” a better plan that would give you access to better services, such as a private room in a hospital.
    On the other hand, I basically have no insurance here. I have travel insurance with a $1000 deductable. It’s worthless unless I get run over by a bus. It’s nearly impossible to find an American insurance company that will cover you outside of the U.S. The system in Germany allows people to use their coverage anywhere on the planet for a year at a time with a small fee…10 Euros.
    The problem is trust. I think Americans are quite willing to be generous. However, we don’t trust those in power to use our money appropriately, so we prefer to keep it to ourselves. On the other hand, individuals can’t be trusted to share their good fortune with those who need it. How many people would willingly “adopt” a grandma whose medicare plan doesn’t cover any dental work? Sure, a few people do that very kind of thing, but it’s sketchy at best.
    There is a stark difference in leadership between the U.S. and Germany. I am not saying one is better than the other, just different. It is particularly glaring in an election year. German politicians are, for lack of a better word, boring, stoic and bit stiff at times. But, at the same time, always respectful and respectable. Even across party lines, one always has the feeling that they won’t lie to you, won’t lie about each other and will honestly try to do the correct thing. In the states, being a politician who fibs a little, slings a little mud and is self-serving has become a normal idea. True or not, the perception is there, and politicians do little to change our perceptions. This, and other things, leads to mistrust. So no, we aren’t so willing to accept a 40% income tax because there is no guarantee it will lead to a better health care system. They have lied to us before. They will lie again.
    How do we change it? Baby steps. We vote for people we can trust, even if they are boring. Tom Osborne is boring, and not even from my preferred party, but I trust him and would vote for him. Then, we give them a little trust and see what they do with it, and God-willing, things will work out.
    Sorry about filling up half of the blog. 🙂 But, this subject is pretty close to my heart.

  2. Kim says:

    When I lived in Vienna, there were almost no homeless people. The few who were had slipped through the cracks of the vast social network there. In fact, the number of homeless people in all of Austria was probably less than the number on my block in either Hyde Park or Cambridge.
    Recently, I was also reading about the vast financial and social advantages offered to mothers and children in Scandinavia and France – things like free health care, subsidized child care, paid maternity leave, stipends to offset the mother’s loss in income – benefits that made this expectant mother green with envy. These countries don’t have the problem of childhood poverty that we are plagued with here in the U.S.
    Europeans pay enormous taxes, but you can see the results clearly. The social welfare state works.
    I don’t think a system like that could work in America. Europeans are more comfortable giving up some of their personal advantages to ensure the well-being of the society as a whole. We Americans have too much of a “rugged individualism” ingrained in us. We take pride in personal responsibility and think that our successes are solely the result of hard work and talent. We don’t see the privileges and disadvantages that undermine our meritocracy and we think that people who don’t succeed in our system must be wholly responsible for their hardships. I think the Europeans explicitly try to create a more level playing field for everyone through the welfare state and, as a result, fewer individuals are left behind.
    Americans are extremely generous when they see a need, and our private charities provide services and solutions that are more effective and innovative than a government bureaucracy provides. The only problems are that charities are often localized and disconnected from each other, and they are dependent on the financial stability and generosity of their donors. It is more likely for services to be scaled back and people to slip through the cracks in this system than in an all-encompassing, centralized government bureaucracy. That’s why I believe that some form of federal government safety net is necessary here, to work in tandem with private charities.
    I think we can learn from the Europeans without becoming like them. But I think we also have to realize that many of our social problems are not intractable, but that some of our choices and priorities keep us from eliminating them like other countries have.

  3. KDC says:

    I will pretend to be an expert on Europe, but will sidestep the issue of the welfare state and high taxes because it seems like the points I might have made have been adequately made. But, with apologies to Jeff, unless you are living in a very small village in Bavaria (and only some of those villages) you must be smoking something. Just because there are blue laws and kids get Maria Himmelfahrt (the Ascension of Mary) off in half the country doesn’t mean Germans are religious. My best estimate of weekly attendance among Catholics is 2/3 to half that in the US, among Protestants probably closer to 1/4 or less. What is astounding about modern Europe is that it has institutionalized religion, right down to religion class all the way through high school in your particular denomination (plus the church tax which you can only opt out of by EXPLICITLY stating you are atheist or part of a “free church” on your official forms), but Christianity at least is quickly unweaving itself from the practical framework of its existence.
    Are there lots of people in Germany whose faith makes a difference in their lives? Absolutely, especially among the older generations who never really questioned it, and I am very proud to be close friends with many younger people as well for whom it makes a profound difference. Heck, you have 80 million people, that’s a lot of churchgoers. But I get really sick of meeting relatives or new friends who say they are Evangelisch or Katholisch and haven’t seen the inside of a church since their confirmation. And this is in the German small-town heartland – in the cities things are much worse.
    The one bright spot I see is that a lot of the current younger generation, IMHO, has so little experience with the Church (in general) that they do not necessarily have the same preconceptions about it that the 68ers have (sort of the boomer equivalent there). So if they were invited to a church with relevant preaching and a good blend of musical styles (Christian contemporary is getting more popular, but I think many more appreciate traditional hymnody as well regardless of faith) they might be in for a treat. Unfortunately, an awful lot of state church preachers are more theology students than pastoral. My sense is that the situation in the rest of Western Europe is similar (Eastern Europe’s Communist experience making it a totally different situation (is the notion of Eastern Europe even valid anymore? or should I say Central Europe?)). Well, maybe that’s a little bit of a generalization, but hey, that’s what the Internet is all about – saying more than you mean with gusto!

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