If you’ve watched any of the GOP campaigning you’ve heard a lot of fringe ideas, including immunization causing mental disabilities, a return to tying our currency to a rock, and Earth’s moon becoming the 51st state in our union. One proclamation seems to go by without anyone questioning it though and that’s Mitt Romney’s admonition that, if left on our current economic course as crafted by the Obama administration, the US may decline to the position of “European-style welfare state.” So far no one has asked him which of the 50 European countries he’s warning us about or really exactly what’s wrong with the concept of a “welfare state.” The journalists and debate moderators so far have been content to let the candidate insinuate that Europe is somehow inferior to America and to associate President Obama with that characterization. It’s guilt by association that’s part and parcel with politics, especially this race that has become a factory of rhetoric calling the opposition “socialists,” “communists,” and the dog-whistle phrases involving “food stamps” and the “ghetto.”
As with all hasty generalizations and fallacies, these insults fall apart upon scrutiny. (I’m not going to dispute each claim one-by-one, you can find counters to the “big government,” and “socialist” accusations pretty quickly just by searching the web.) Much the same as Newt Gingrich’s characterization of Barack Obama as the “food stamp” president, Romney’s little jab associates the President (maybe in a little slyer fashion than Newt’s) with Europe and welfare. To the American conservative, Europeans are elitists and snobs. And our collective definition of welfare is that it’s dirty; it’s for the poor and lazy and in many American minds it’s almost exclusively for minorities. The association of Barack Obama simultaneously as an elitist and somehow also a dirty, lazy minority seems contradictory on the face of it, but never underestimate an American conservative’s ability to ascribe mutually exclusive characteristics to the president or Democrats in general. Remember Newt Gingrich warned us of America’s future as “a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists.”
(More idiocy after the jump!)
Romney’s statement does something else important: it situates him in our middle class. We certainly don’t want the pretentious wines, the overinflated art and architecture, nor the snotty downcast gazes of the Parisians or Romans. (We don’t need them anyway!) And we don’t mind getting up in the morning to go do a day’s labor; no handouts for us. We’re just fine in work boots and flannel shirts. We love the Superbowl and don’t much care for modern art museums. And we like beer and thick steaks, not champagne and snails, thank you. If times get tough we do everything in our power to stay off public assistance. Mitt would really love to be a part of our crowd because we make up a huge section of the electorate. His statement really attempts to position himself amongst us, at the head of the crowd, pitchfork or torch in hand as he commands us to storm the White House before moving on to the Palace of Versailles.
The problem is that welfare means something entirely different to the rest of the world. In fact, it has meant something entirely different to us until about the 1960s. Our constitution even mentions it, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States …” In this context, the word means the health, happiness (to some extent), and basic material provisions for well-being. (This is how the rest of the world defines welfare too. It’s only in the US, and really only in the past half-century or so, that the definition has become so clouded with negative imagery and so charged with racial context.) When Mitt Romney says “European-style welfare state,” what he’s really saying is “a system of safety nets and provisions that elevate our poor and middle class, including healthcare, education, and collective funds for unemployment, disability, or general poverty.” So, I ask Mr. Romney: What is so wrong with providing the very basic necessities to everyone in our country in the same manner of many European countries?
In fact, after we correct for inequality, the “Nordic model” offers a better quality of life, education, and health than what we in the US enjoy. In what might be the most powerful example, the United Nations collects data from member countries and distributes this information as statistics in what it calls the “Human Development Index” or “HDI.” This index shows the contrasts between countries that show “very high human development,” “high human development,” “medium human development,” and “low human development.” This high-level report shows that first world nations have greater life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living. There are no surprises in this index; obviously Americans, the French, Canadians, etc. have more education and live longer healthier lives than the average Liberian, Cambodian, or Egyptian. But, similar to Romney’s fallacious characterization, once we examine the information we get a much clearer picture. For instance, in the top-level HDI report put out by the UN, America places fourth behind (no. 1) the Netherlands, (2) Austria, and (3) Norway. But when we adjust for inequality the US drops to 23rd(!) behind 19 European countries, Canada, Australia, and Israel. (It’s worth noting that US aid to Israel ranges in about the two to three billion dollar ballpark. In essence, we give three billion dollars in aid so that Israel can have universal healthcare and subsidized public college education and place higher on the adjusted HDI than we do. Mr. Romney has pledged continued support to Israel.) Still looking at the inequality-adjusted HDI, five of the top ten rankings are of Nordic Model countries and a full nine of the top ten are European.
In short, Mitt Romney has so far in his campaign repeatedly warned us that if we continue down the economic path we’re following under President Obama, we’ll be better educated, healthier, and have a higher standard of living than we do now and if we elect him, Mitt Romney, he’ll happily reverse that present course. It almost makes Newt’s moon base proposal look positively sensible by comparison.