Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hello Again, America

Part of why my transition to American life has been less than smooth probably has to do with politics. A small part, yes, but there's no use in denying that I am a political animal.

Obama's election roughly coincided with me leaving the country, and though I always kept an eye on U.S. news, there's a difference between looking in when you choose and being immersed in it. In my naivety, I thought the U.S. had gotten a little more, well, sensible. We elected a Constitutional Law professor rather than a journalism major without a passport, for example. The public was squarely against the ongoing war in Iraq. I thought things, broadly speaking, had calmed down from the ultra-partisan, bitter, angry mood that characterized the Bush years — a mood that, both in Washington and living rooms, made reasonable discussion about political issues impossible.

Boy was I wrong.

I was airlifted into a jungle of Tea Parties, Rallies (both for sanity and against), and onslaughts of negative, largely untrue campaign ads. The stench of anti-incumbent fervor was as thick in the air as in 2008. Once again, it was impossible (is impossible) to actually discuss issues — like the healthcare reform bill — because stakes had already been immovably planted. And by God if someone had planted their stake across the turf from yours, that's it. No discussion. No debate. Just negativity, and snide gotchas based on grossly untrue assumptions and exaggerations.

I'm not opposed to betraying my bias — this is a blog, not a news outlet — but I am opposed to ideology clouding reason, judgment, and discussion. I'm not so much worried about politeness as I am about closed-mindedness.

So the Republicans were swept into power. They are going to use the skills they demonstrated in the last decade to bring the deficit under control (See? No one cares to remember who started digging the deficit). They are going to re-examine healthcare reform. They are going to use the skills they demonstrated in the last decade to bring unemployment down (See? No one cares to remember under whose watch all those jobs were outsourced).

Fine. I think that compromise is by and large a force for good in politics (and just about everything else in life). If something is actually a good idea, everyone should agree, right? Yes... except when petty, partisan politics gets in the way of real progress.

But I digress; my main intention here is to relay two conversations about Europe I've had lately with people of vastly different backgrounds, perspectives, and — you guessed it — political affiliations. Please put that last bit aside for the moment, though, because which party someone supports is secondary to their way of thinking, and that's what I'm after.

First, a friend told me, "Gosh, you must be glad to be back in America." I asked what he meant, and his response was simple: "After being over there in Europe for two years and seeing what they deal with, it must feel good to be back in the States." No evidence, no argument. Just: America is superior. I was tempted to press him for more, but it's never polite to talk about politics, is it? (see above) so I let him off the hook.

Because I know him and his background as a business owner, I'll go ahead and make a guess: "It must be nice not to have your earnings and everything you buy taxed at such an exorbitant rate." Just in case this isn't what he meant, I've heard this sentiment echoed by others, so I feel safe in saying that this is a view shared by many Americans.

The other conversation, however, was with someone in the classical music industry (as I may be one of these days) who spends a month or two every year in Europe. He complained about the lack of government support for the arts. "The fine arts are worth a 1% sales tax to every Arizonan and to every American. The correction is necessary because our economy has not developed in a way that rewards artists. In bygone centuries it did, but no longer."

The first view is essentially capitalistic, the second, socialist. We have been well-trained to regard the first term with positive and the second with negative connotations. Such connotations aren't of much practical use, though.

At their cores, both ideas are predicated upon ugly concepts: capitalism in its purest form leads to a kind of feudalism. Very few ultra-wealthy, many poor. Socialism in its purest form takes incentive away from creation, from ingenuity, and from personal skill and achievement. Neither is an enticing model of civilization. It's the blend of the two that makes society work.

Roads, firefighters, and national defense are all socialist in nature; anything that is governmental whatsoever goes against pure capitalism. So almost no one thinks that eradicating all traces of socialism is a good idea (except, you know, those fun-loving anarchists), and no one thinks ridding the planet of capitalism will work either.

What we argue about — what we fight and claw each other about — is what the right mix is. Should healthcare be socialized or not? What is the right balance of welfare that reduces crime and the homeless population but maintains incentive for people to get back to work? Sure, there are issues out there that don't fall in this category, but I think you'll find that most of them do: for what issues should there be few shareholders (as in a company) and for what issues should every member of society be a shareholder (as in government)?

People fall over the spectrum: I know a Dutch man who is frustrated with what he considers the 'nanny state' in his country and how it leads people to not work to their full potential. Similar concerns are common in the UK: the government just reformed some policies, for example, by which someone would make less money by getting a job.

It is my opinion, though, that the U.S. has far more to learn from Europe than vice versa. As someone who payed for my healthcare with taxes for the last two years, I have to tell people who are afraid of it (which more often than not means they don't understand it) that it's not a bad thing. The U.S. healthcare system is viewed as barbaric (and rightly so) across the Atlantic: how could someone's medical care depend on how much money they have? And being able to attend concerts, exhibitions, and culture of every kind for little or no money is due in no small part to government support of the arts. Americans marvel at such things on vacation (I heard it constantly: "All these museums, free!") but call it wasteful at home.

The truth is that on many fronts — transport, justice, foreign relations, quality of life — a nation is measured by its government because the government represents all its people, not the privileged few in the board room. Should we choose to invest in that government — in the people — everyone will share in the rewards; and those who choose to invest in the privileged few better hope they're lucky enough to be one of the privileged few.

Europeans have taken this more to heart than Americans (perhaps because they endured centuries of feudalism), and I think their balance of capitalism and socialism is operating better than ours at the moment. In fact, I've only been back a little more than two months now, and O how I miss the place!