By George B. Kauffman
American TV, the source of “news” for most of us, wastes time on ever-changing polls showing who is ahead in the race for the 2016 election, as if it were a sports game. Failed pundits such as Dick Cheney appear regularly on news shows instead of being shamed. Although most commentators admit that such polls are useless, they continue to drone on and on. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, of which we constitute a mere 5%, watches our antics in disbelief.
Europeans, Asians and Africans are baffled about the increasingly troubling conduct of our country. They complain that America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering and “exceptionality” have gone on for too long to be considered just an adolescent phase and is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.
Unlike today, after World War II, our country was admired around the world. Even after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, even in the Middle East, many thought that the Supreme Court’s installation of George W. Bush as president was a blunder American voters’ would correct in the election of 2004. His return to office truly spelled the end of America as the world had known it. Bush had started a war, opposed by the entire world, because he wanted to and he could. A majority of Americans supported him.
Most Americans don’t realize just how strange we now seem. Foreign observers are far better informed about us than we are about them. This is partly because the “news” in the American media is so limited in its views. Both of how we act, and how other countries think, even countries with which we were recently, are currently or threaten soon to be at war.
America’s belligerence and financial acrobatics compel the rest of the world to keep close track of us. They worry about what conflict Americans might drag them into next, as target or ally. The rest of the world is concerned when we bomb another country in the name of our “national security,” when another peaceful protest march is attacked by our increasingly militarized police, when another politician rails against “big government” yet hopes to head that very government in Washington.
They wonder, “Why would anyone oppose national healthcare?” European and other industrialized countries have had some form of national healthcare since the 1930s or 1940s, Germany since 1880. Some versions, as in France and Great Britain, have devolved into two-tier public and private systems. Yet even the privileged who pay for a faster track would not begrudge fellow citizens government-funded comprehensive healthcare. That so many Americans do strikes Europeans as baffling, if not frankly brutal.
In the Scandinavian countries, a national health program, funded by the state, is a big part of a more general social welfare system.
In Norway, all citizens have a state-subsidized preschool from age one, and free schools from age six through specialty training or university education and beyond, unemployment benefits, job placement and paid retraining services, paid parental leave, old age pensions and more. These benefits are universal— equally available to all citizens as human rights encouraging social harmony.
Norway ranks as the best place to grow old, to be a woman and to raise a child, with the other Nordic social democracies, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, as close contenders.
In Norway, all benefits are paid primarily by high taxation. Compared to the U.S. tax code, Norway’s is straightforward, taxing income from labor and pensions progressively. Those with higher incomes pay more. Because government policies effectively redistribute wealth and tend to narrow the country’s slim income gap, most Norwegians, in contrast with Americans, who justifiably grumble about our tax system, are satisfied with their system.
In the 1930s, all five Nordic countries developed the Nordic Model—a balance of regulated capitalism, universal social welfare, political democracy and the highest levels of gender and economic equality on the planet. Despite the efforts of an occasional conservative government to reverse things, the progressive system persists.
In all Nordic countries, there is general agreement that only when people’s basic needs are met, for example, ceasing to worry about their jobs, their housing, their healthcare, their kids’ education and their aging parents, only then can they be free to do as they like. While we believe in the fantasy that every kid has an equal shot at the American dream, in the Nordic social welfare system such a dream is actually true.
Now a CEO of a major American corporation earns 300–400 times as much as its average employee. Republican Governors Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chris Christie of New Jersey, having run up their state’s debts by cutting taxes for the rich, plan to cover the loss with money snatched from pension funds of public-sector workers. The rest of the world thinks that government’s job is to distribute the country’s good fortune reasonably equally, not send it zooming upward to a sticky-fingered one percent.
Norwegians envision what a better life might be for their children, their posterity. They cannot understand how two-thirds of American college students finish their education in debt, some owing $100,000 or more, or that one in three children lives in poverty, along with one in five young people ages 18–34. Or, that America’s recent multi-trillion-dollar wars were fought on a credit card to be paid off by our kids.
The rest of the world wonders: How could you set up that concentration camp in Cuba and why can’t you shut it down? How can you pretend to be a Christian country and still carry out the death penalty? How could you pick as president a man proud of executing his fellow citizens at the fastest rate recorded in Texas history? Why can’t you Americans stop interfering with women’s healthcare?
How can you deny the reality of climate change? How can you speak of the rule of law when your presidents break international laws to make war whenever they want? How can you ignore the Geneva Conventions and your principles to advocate torture? Why do Americans like guns so much? Why do you kill each other at such a rate?
The most important question is: Why do you send your military all over the world to stir up more trouble for all of us? That last question is especially important because countries historically friendly to the United States, from Australia to Finland, are struggling to keep up with an influx of refugees from America’s wars and interventions.
Europeans understand, unlike Americans, the intimate connection between a country’s domestic and foreign policies. They trace America’s reckless conduct abroad to its refusal to put its own house in order. They’ve watched us unravel our flimsy safety net, fail to replace our decaying infrastructure, disempower most of our organized labor, diminish our schools, bring our Congress to a standstill and create the greatest degree of economic and social inequality in almost a century.
They understand why Americans, who have ever less personal security and next to no social welfare system, are becoming more anxious and fearful. They understand why so many Americans have lost trust in a government that has done so little new for them over the past three decades or more, except for Obama’s endlessly embattled healthcare effort, which most Europeans consider a pathetically modest proposal.
What baffles so many of them, though, is how ordinary Americans in startling numbers have been persuaded to dislike “big government” but yet support its new representatives, bought and paid for by the rich.
Are we paranoid, backward, vain, greedy, self-absorbed or just dumb? Or are we merely ill-informed, misguided, misled or asleep? If we’re not crazy, we’re still a great danger to ourselves and to the entire world. We need to wake up and learn from the rest of the world, where more sanity prevails.
(Author’s note: This article is based on Ann Jones’ TomDispatch.com article of Jan. 11, 2015 (www.commondreams. org/views/2015/01/11/country-crazy-inquiring-minds-elsewhere-want-know).)
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Chemical Society (ACS), respectively.