Friday, April 9, 2010

Why the lag?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy commented on the passage of the Affordable Care Act:

"Welcome to the club of states who don't turn their back on the sick and the poor," Sarkozy said, referring to the U.S. health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama last week.

From the European perspective, he said, "when we look at the American debate on reforming health care, it's difficult to believe."

"The very fact that there should have been such a violent debate simply on the fact that the poorest of Americans should not be left out in the streets without a cent to look after them ... is something astonishing to us."

Then to hearty applause, he added: "If you come to France and something happens to you, you won't be asked for your credit card before you're rushed to the hospital." 

This got me to thinking. Why is it that we are so far behind most developed countries? Our public education system, our health care system, and our energy policy are all significantly less progressive (and many would argue less effective) than those found in most other OECD countries. Health care is obvious. We pay more for worse results. The EU has a cap-and-trade system in place, and has always been better at conservation and recycling. Americans lag behind other OECD countries in reading and math, rather pathetically. There's no reason the literacy rate in this country shouldn't be 100%.

And yet, when policies that we can see working in other countries are proposed, Americans recoil. We have an instinctual distaste for policies seen as "socialist" or "distributional." (Clearly, this isn't true of the liberal wing of the Democratic party, but it is true of the vast majority of Americans.) I would argue that our political spectrum is skewed to the right. I've mentioned this before. I would like to illustrate my point.

This is the conventional American political spectrum:


For comparison, this is a UK political spectrum, as a general proxy for EU politics:


Now, I would argue that if you put the American parties on the UK ideological spectrum, you would get the following:
 Why is this?

I have a couple ideas.

1) America is young. In comparison to Western Europe, America is still an adolescent. All you need to do is walk around a European city and look at the massive buildings built before Columbus even came to America to see that. Perhaps we're just lagging behind because of a more compressed history?

We're young in another way. While we were certainly hugely involved in World War Two, that war was fought overseas (other than balloon bombs). We did not have the same experience that Europe had. The collective memory of Europe still remembers the rationing and the hard times during and immediately following the war. It is an experience that America just did not go through. I don't mean to minimize that sacrifices of that generation of Americans, but merely to point out how terrible that war was for European nations.

2) The American Dream. The country has always been known as a place where everyone has the chance to come from nowhere to become successful. That idea permeates our consciousness. While I wouldn't argue that it's a bad thing, it does have an unfortunate side effect: people are less empathetic. This becomes evident when you see the most honest attacks on social welfare programs. Americans have a dislike of "handouts." "Welfare" polls very badly in the US. It's usually one of the few things that Americans wouldn't mind cutting spending on.

The idea, I guess, is that if they were able to work hard and make a living for themselves, anyone can. There's no excuse for being unemployed or poor. This is the same sort of thinking, incidentally, that lies behind the conservative reluctance to extend unemployment benefits. Economists point out that unemployment benefits will be very quickly spent, acting as a stimulus and helping the economy. Conservatives say that unemployment benefits take away the incentive to find work.

3) America's unique history.  America was founded by immigrants. People came to the country to start a new life, oftentimes escaping religious persecution in their home countries. In fact, it's possible that the Puritan history of our country has caused us to skew right. We were founded, in part, by religious fundamentalists. That legacy may have left us with a political spectrum that leans farther rightward than the countries in Western Europe that have developed in a more nationalist fashion. I'm not as convinced by this one, but that history of religious immigration has to be embedded in our national psyche in some way.

Obviously there's no one reason for this. But it's a perplexing situation, and I think it deserves exploration. What causes might I have missed?

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