13 January 2010

Take note: there are better ways to run a nation

I recently returned from three days in Berlin, the German capital, where Oksana and I visited museums, the Berlin zoo and aquarium, and walked for hours through snowy streets. Berlin and most of the rest of Germany was in the throes of a blizzard described in frightening terms by the news media, though the locals appeared to take it in stride, doing seemingly little to deviate from their normal routines. We saw walkers, runners, even bicyclists, unhampered by the cold and snow.

My travels through Germany in recent weeks have only reinforced how affluent this society is compared to the United States. Yes there is urban poverty in Germany, but it is much less evident than that of any major U.S. city. Basic infrastructure, like roads, railways and bridges, are superior. Rail lines in the inner cities pass through industrial areas that hum with activity, unlike the decaying brick and concrete shells that form much of the American urban landscape. Earlier this week, several news services reported that China is poised to become the leading exporting nation in the world, finally overtaking, not the United States with a population of more than 300 million, but Germany with 82 million residents.

Basic energy and resource conservation measures in Germany are way ahead of many U.S. cities and states and employ little more than common sense: every city recycles its household and commercial waste, every glass or plastic bottle containing hard or soft drinks has a deposit to encourage recycling, and light switches and energy-using devices automatically turn off when they are not in use.

American exceptionalists, take note: life for most residents is not only better in Germany than it is in the United but the same can also be said about the rest of the European Union. “Europeans work shorter hours, have a greater say in how their employers behave, receive lengthy paid vacations and paid parental leave, can rely on guaranteed paid pensions, have free or extremely inexpensive comprehensive and preventative healthcare, enjoy free or extremely inexpensive educations from preschool through college, impose half the per-capita environmental damage of Americans, endure a fraction of the violence found in the United States, imprison a fraction of the prisoners locked up here, and benefit from democratic representation, engagement, and civil liberties unimagined in the land where we're teased that the world hates our rather mediocre ‘freedoms,’” reports David Swanson.

Yes, it is true that Europeans pay higher income taxes, but they generally receive larger paychecks and pay lower state, local, property, and social security taxes. And only a smaller percentage of the income they earned has to be spent on healthcare, the cost of which has bankrupted many American families, or college education, which has become prohibitively expensive for many and erodes the nation’s economic future by denying it a skilled, globally competitive workforce.

No one wants to pay any higher income taxes than necessary, but why does the discussion in the United States so seldom get around to the most basic question: What do we get for what we pay in taxes? We don’t get healthcare and adequate social services, because too much of U.S. tax revenues are spent to bail out the richest banks and corporations, to fatten the bloated budgets of an often incompetent military, and to subsidize the tax cuts for the richest Americans. There are better ways to run a nation and one doesn’t have to look far for the evidence.

Photo: The TV Tower, the city's highest edifice at 1,200 feet, in the background of the Berliner Dom, or cathedral, "the mother church of Prussian Protestantism in Berlin," according to one city guide.

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