Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense, liked to describe, in his sneering way, America’s NATO allies as “old Europe.” Newt Gingrich, the nutty professor, constantly nags on the presidential campaign trail about “European-style socialism.” Rick Santorum, the Doogie Howser of presidential politics, claims that President Obama’s health care bill will lead to “European Socialism.” And Mitt Romney, the master of scrambled syntax, says that Americans must choose between “a European-style welfare state” and “a free land.” Each is seeking his own degree of separation from the reality of what works for people or a profit yield as they try to out-conservative each other. Say what they might, in their political dog-whistle ways, there’s a lot that America can learn from Europe by emulating what it does best.
Right up front is the French universal health care system, ranked by the World Health Organization as the world’s best. It’s inexpensive, it’s not-for-profit and it’s virtually fraud-proof. The only program in America that resembles the French system is the Veterans Administration health care system, which operates independently of the general health care system at low cost and no profit. It is linked nationwide by computers and negotiates its own prescription drug prices without government interference and drug company demands. The VA’s care is first-rate. It’s kind of like European-style socialism.
The French health care system is largely financed by the government through national health insurance to which everyone contributes—every citizen pays 6.8 percent of income—and all citizens are covered, kind of like Medicare for everyone. In America, there are 50 million people with no health insurance of any kind. The system consumes 11 percent of the French GDP, at a cost of $3926 per capita, much lower than the United States where the employer-based, for-profit system, eats up 16 percent of the nation’s GDP and is rising dramatically. In America, for example, an MRI costs about $1200. In France, an MRI costs $148. The French system refunds 70 percent of health care costs and 100 percent of costly or long-term illnesses.
French doctors earn about 40 percent less than American doctors because they pay no tuition for medical school and thus have no student loan debt to jack up fees. Malpractice insurance is much cheaper in France, too. And here’s the kicker. The French use an encoded “smart card” system, carried by every citizen, that virtually eliminates fraud. By contrast, a doctor in Texas was charged last week with fraudulently billing Medicare and Medicaid in a $375 million health-care scam—the largest case of health care fraud ever uncovered. A smart card block, similar to the one used in France, would have intercepted the scam. In America, there is a political stand-off over women’s health care through contraception, an issue that was settled more than a half century ago but has been revived as the cultural battle of the moment. Yet no one even blinks over the common form of male contraception, the vasectomy.
Recycling is another area where America can learn a lesson from Europeans. There, incineration of waste is the preferred method of disposal while land fills, common in America, are the last resort. Even certain types of waste are banned from land fills. Methods of waste prevention and disposal are governed by the European Union Commission. Waste prevention is linked directly to improving manufacturing methods and reducing the use of hazardous substances which helps to control emissions from incinerators.
In Europe, 27 nations agree on standards, but in America there is a constant battle among the 50 states and the federal government, the business community and environmentalists as well as conservatives and liberals. It’s difficult to get anything done in America because of competing interests and the efforts of business to abuse and repeal regulations. The billionaire Koch brothers, for example, support Republican deregulation efforts to benefit their oil and paper mill interests. Environmental regulations are among the reasons many American manufacturers have moved overseas. They can now pollute other countries.
Europe has always been far ahead of America in the use of nuclear power. In the European Union, 14 of 27 countries have nuclear reactors and 15 percent of the energy produced is nuclear power. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, has altered European thinking, however. France, which is considered the commercial nuclear power model for the world, is considering a partial shutdown. Germany is phasing out nuclear plants. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new nuclear facilities. Italy is non-nuclear.
In America, building a new energy source of any kind is difficult. Only recently have a couple of new power plants been authorized. No new refinery has been built in America in a couple of generations and one was recently decommissioned, putting a further strain on the fuel supply. Wind and solar power are off to a slow and tentative start on account of private financing being in short supply because of risk and uncertainty. Natural gas is the nation’s only plentiful supply of energy ready and available to be cultivated for the future. The holdup is how to get it out of the ground (fracking) without endangering the underground water supply and other natural elements that could affect human health.
Virtually every major city in Europe has a vast network of public transportation modes. In America, adequate public transportation is limited to a handful of major cities such as New York, Boston, the District of Columbia and Chicago. In Europe, the rail systems are legendary. The object of public transportation is to move people, not cars. And in Europe, people-movers employ both land and water to move subways, trains, buses and boats by canals and rivers. In Rome adventurous people rent Vespas and in London they ride the tube or the underground, depending on how deep the tunnel is. Public spaces, such as parks, squares and boulevards do not exist in America on the scale that they do in Europe.
Finally, Europe was far head of America in the production of fuel-efficient cars. The cost of gasoline in some European countries is triple that of the price in America, driven by taxes and not the cost of oil. America is married to the automobile even though the industry resists efficiency standards. Los Angeles is a city of highways and expressways that were built to keep the city forever reliant on cars. And there are various associations of roadbuilders, lobbying and special interest organizations whose business—and campaign contributions—is to keep the nation addicted to the automobile.
America the beautiful is also America the banal. In Europe, history and progress happily co-exist side-by-side. Architecture is another expression of European supremacy in the creative arts that America can learn from. There are breathtaking and eye-boggling examples across the continent: the Kumthaus multi-media complex in Graz, Austria; the Pompidou Center in Paris; the futuristic Maxxi in Rome, a short hop from the Coliseum; the Reichstag in Berlin; the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; the City of Barcelona, Spain, virtually an outdoor art gallery created by Gaudi; and perhaps the most spectacular of them all, the Millau, the steel-crafted viaduct at Aveyron, France, the highest vehicular bridge in the world that resembles an artwork in spun silver.
In America, most architecture involves erecting steel skeletons and wrapping them in pre-fabricated brick slabs. The architect Frank Gehry, for example, has executed some of his most daring work (the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) abroad rather than here at home. In Baltimore there are only four signature buildings with architectural pedigree—Gehry’s Harper House in the Village of Cross Keys; the World Trade Center by I.M. Pei; and One Charles Center and Highfield House by Mies Van Der Rohe. But perhaps the most graceful of them all, the no-name Ambassador Apartments, on Canterbury Rd., was built with government subsidies by the WPA during the Great Depression. More European-style socialism.
Socialism has been given a bad name by conservative politicians. Their idea of economics and government is the Darwinian notion that screwing each other improves the breed. Yet the private sector is resistant to adventure and, more often than not, relies on government to be the risk-taker of first resort. Only after government success does business demand a piece of the action. The space program is a good example. Without NASA and government money, there’d be no satellite spin-off technology to the private sector such as cell phones and satellite TV and an array of other developments at government expense. To be sure, there is more corporate welfare than individual handouts—$4 billion in annual oil industry subsidies, trillions in bank bailouts, agricultural subsidies and tax loopholes created by lobbyists (and campaign contributions) for the wealthiest Americans. America just might be the most socialist nation on the planet. We prefer, with a straight face, to call it something else. No wonder Europeans are often bemused.