Friday, July 31, 2020

The Evils of Socialism

Evil baby box

I've lived all of my adult life in the U.S., except for the past two years when I've mostly lived in Scotland. It's probably safe to list Scotland, and the greater United Kingdom, as a "socialist" country, at least compared to the U.S. 

[One note about terminology: "Social capitalism," "democratic socialism," or "social market economy" might be better terms because "socialism" may conjure images of the failed and undemocratic puppet governments of the USSR. Nevertheless, it appears we Americans are stuck with "socialism" as the primary term to describe a social democracy, but bear in mind, when I use it, I'm using it with a country like Denmark or Scotland in mind, not the GDR or Venezuela.]

As a dual U.S.-U.K citizen who has sipped the poisons of European socialism, I may have useful insights into the evils that may come to America, championed by the likes of Bernie Sanders and the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Evil #1: Universal Health Care

In October 2019, my daughter was born via C-section in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, where, under the NHS system, we didn't have one bill apart from one non-essential test around the third month of pregnancy that I paid for out of pocket. Apart from that $600 test, my child was born for free. The quality of care was excellent: prenatal classes, five nights in the hospital, health visitors who come to our flat and check up on the baby, etc. The Scottish government mailed a “baby box” to us, which includes useful items such as clothes, a teething ring, and a changing mat. The box comes with a foam mattress and doubles as a crib.



I have been healthy these past two years, but I did have a brief check-up for something small. It took me about two-to-three days from requesting the appointment to seeing the doctor. I got a free prescription for a pill at the pharmacy. And I've received a free eye exam and I have a free dental visit scheduled.

Let's compare my U.K. experiences to what I would have experienced in the U.S. In the state of NY, a C-section WITH insurance would have cost $12,000. WITHOUT insurance it would have cost $22,000. Check here for your state's cost of delivering a baby. Under the horribly treated and much maligned Affordable Care Act (which, to be fair, never went far enough), I pay $35 a month for my subsidized NY State health insurance (great!), but this health insurance covers nothing, and I have an in-state deductible of over $7,000, meaning that I will receive no discount on medical bills until I pay over $7,000 in medical bills (not great…).

Evil #2: Maternity Leave

Scotland gave my wife one-year of maternity leave. For the first six weeks, she got 90% of her usual income. For the next thirty-three weeks, she got a check for $200 a week. The final thirteen weeks are unpaid. This is voluntary, of course. She could have chosen to go back to work after a few weeks after the birth.

The U.S. has no universal maternity leave legislation, meaning some moms get no paid leave. The inadequate Family and Medical Leave Act gives mothers twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave. But this is only given to mothers who work for companies that have more than fifty employees and who've worked for the company for 1,250 hours and a full year. Some states, like New York, have their own maternity leave laws. New York, which has one of the more generous systems, offers ten weeks of family leave, granting a parent with 60% of their usual pay.

Scotland's maternity leave system is actually pretty weak when compared to other European countries. Estonia, for instance, offers eighty-four weeks of maternity leave with full pay. In Germany, a mother can be on family leave and hold her job position for three years (though she won't be receiving full pay for those three years).

Evil #3: Early Education

Scotland increased the amount of free early education for three and four year olds from 600 hours to 1,140 hours a year (or about thirty hours a week during the school year). National U.K. policies provide early education (from age three up until proper school age) to 73% of U.K. children. That's low when compared to countries like Sweden, Iceland, Spain, and Belgium where virtually all young kids are given free early education.

Only Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma have universal Pre-K education. Research on Pre-K education has shown the kids enrolled in Pre-K experience, later in life, fewer arrests, fewer substance abuse problems, better graduation rates, and they're more likely to attend and complete college.

Evil #4: Child Benefit Assistance

Parents in the U.K. get about $30 a week to help with new costs, like nappies, food, whatever. You’re given about $20 for each additional child. My brothers- and sisters-in-law in Germany get $240 per child a month. As you have more kids, you get more money. For your fourth child, the German government will give you $275 a month. (A parent of four kids in Germany will be bringing in close to $1,000 a month just from these child payments.)

To my knowledge, no such program exists in the U.S., but there is a U.S. tax benefit for taxpayers with dependent children.

Evil #5: Free college tuition 

If my daughter attends a Scottish university, she won't have to pay any tuition. The situation isn't perfect. Students still have to pay for living costs. Denmark, according to this 2015 article, provides free tuition AND $900 a month to students to cover living costs. In Germany, education is free and interest-free loans are given to low-income people. They do not have to pay their debts until they begin earning a reasonable sum.

In the U.S., data shows that the average student debt is about $30,000. I, for instance, had to pay $35,000 in student debt for my American education.

Evil #6: Senior benefits

At age sixty, Scots get free bus passes, which is a bigger perk than you may realize, given how much more U.K. people rely on public transport than U.S. folks. Pension benefits begin at age sixty-six, when you'll receive $175 a week, though I understand that can be higher or lower depending on your contributions. 

Evil #7: Paid Leave

U.K. workers get twenty-eight days of paid leave a year. In the U.S., there is no national law guaranteeing paid vacation or paid holidays to workers. Some U.S. companies offer paid leave, of course, but how many days is up to the company. U.S. companies will, on average, provide twenty paid vacation days to people who’ve worked for the company for twenty years. For people starting off at their new job, it’s ten days.

Evil #8: The Right to Roam

Roaming in Scotland

The right to roam isn't necessarily a socialist policy, but socialist countries tend to generously open up the country for public recreation. Scotland, in 2003, passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which opened up virtually all Scottish lands and waters (including private lands and waters) for responsible recreation. Countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland have equivalent systems. Countries like Germany provide access to woods and around agricultural fields, though camping is not permitted everywhere. I use this evil all the time.

Evil #9: Manageable cell phone and broadband costs

One of the things that drives me nuts about the U.S. is how there are no truly useful budget mobile data plans. In the U.S., I pay $44 a month for 10GB at T-Mobile. In the U.K., I pay $22 a month for 10GB with O2. Click here to look up countries ranked by cost of mobile data.

As for broadband, I pay $22 a month in the U.K. In the U.S., the average broadband cost appears to be more like $60 a month.

Evil #10: State-owned industry

One thing conservatives love to do is discredit state-owned industry by pointing to failed states like Venezuela. Fair enough, but they conveniently leave out Norway, which took ownership of the oil and gas industry decades ago. Revenue from the industry goes into a $1.1 trillion wealth fund that supports welfare projects. This may sound too radical for Americans, but the conservative state of Alaska has a similar policy for its oil and gas industry. Every year, every Alaskan gets a dividend from between $1,000 and $2,000.

Evil #11: Reasonable taxes

None of the above benefits are free. They're paid for by taxes. You might assume your tax bills would be devastatingly high with all these generous programs (and they can be high for the well-off), but they're quite manageable for the average earner. For someone who earns around $40,000, like myself, I’ll be paying a Scottish income tax rate of 21%. In the U.S., it’d be 22%. in other words, I’d pay MORE in the U.S. It must be said that if you’re a Scot who earns more than $57,000, then you will have higher taxes than an American who earns that same income.
U.S. income tax rate 2020

Scottish income tax rate 2020

Evil #12: Prosperity for all

The World Economic Forum publishes an annual list of countries, ranking them on "global competitiveness.” Check out the Top-50 countries on this list (page xiii). These Top-50 are dominated by all of these European socialist countries. Or consider “social mobility,” which describes the ease at which an individual can climb the socio-economic ladder. According to the World Economic Forum, the most mobile countries are European social democracies. The U.S. is ranked at #27.

World Economic Forum, social mobility rankings

Honorable mention evils

There are probably so many benefits that I'm unaware of. There are no doubt benefits for the disabled, kids with learning disorders, senior citizens, and for arts funding. My sister in law, who works in Luxembourg, tells me that she gets roughly $700 a month in child payments for her two kids, plus additional money for school supplies. Child care is free for children between 2-6. Full pay was offered to her for four months during the pandemic lockdown. Fifty free face masks were provided to her family, plus vouchers to stay in a hotel to perk up the tourism industry. There are probably a thousand other small things like this that are under my radar.

***

All nonsense aside, I've experienced and benefited from at least six of these benefits in just my two years of on-again-off-again living in Scotland. There is so much I miss about the U.S.: the wildlife, the wild forests, the toilets that flush, the everyday cheeriness of its people, and my social connections. But there are times when I think: Why would I ever go back?

Health care, maternity leave, free education, a right to roam: these are serious life-enhancing benefits that have, for me, reduced stress and anxiety. They’ve made life easier and better. I’d think twice before giving them up.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Trump Store


The other day I was driving down River Road to go for a walk along Tonawanda Creek (this is in Western New York), and I spotted a "Trump Store" trailer full of Trump paraphernalia. This was my second sighting of it. I was mostly amused upon my first sighting, when the trailer was sitting there sadly by the river without any shoppers. But the other day, when I arrived to take a few snarky photos, there was a handful of shoppers. After five minutes, the cars started to roll in and a pretty long line developed, with shoppers ranging in age from about 8 to 80. 

Of course I was amazed that people were flocking to buy Trump gear on a not-terribly-busy street in a blue state after 3.5 years of continued mismanagement, especially now that he is at peak incompetence. Aren't the shoppers bothered by the 140,000+ dead, his bungled response to the George Floyd protests, or the economy in ruins, not to mention all the other stuff we've had to put up with? If I was a Trump supporter, I'd have a paper bag over my head, and yet here they were, showing their loyalty in open view, as if supporting a wannabe fascist is nothing to be embarrassed about. They were in line to buy flags of Trump gallantly standing on top of a charging tank, or signs that read "Keep Impeach-o-crats Whining" and "Trump 2020: No More Bullshit"--this last one the most galling, as Trump is the biggest bullshitter of them all, having just surpassed 20,000 false or misleading claims since he assumed office, according to Washington Post fact-checkers. (1)

But I chose to write this to wonder rather than to moan. What is it about us, or what is it about Trump, that would lead to a Trump store? There likely has never been an Angela Merkel store, nor a Boris Johnson one. Or a W. Bush or an Obama trailer. In North Carolina, I see so many (rather giant) "Trump 2020" flags. I don't recall seeing any Romney 2012 or Obama 2012 flags... I've had four years to read and think about this guy and yet I'm still mystified and grasping for explanations about why someone would be interested in wearing one of his hats. Yes, I'm troubled that people are still worshipping this guy after four years of nonsense, but it'd also be troubling if people were buying his shirts on Day One. And that's because it's unhealthy and dangerous (and unmanly I might add) to deify another man. 

My only guess is that American politics has become too religious, and I mean "religious" not in a Christian way, but in a broader monotheistic way. Our party is our church, and our leader is our messiah. This was as true for Obama as it is for Trump (though Obama's supporters retained their capacity for criticism, scrutiny, and ultimately apostasy). 

Politics doesn't have to be religious. Germany hasn't had a messiah politician in 75 years, and the U.K., perhaps due to the continued presence of the royal family, is unwilling to deify just another PM.
Part of me just wants American politics to be boring and led by competent and faceless civil servants. Let's get our rowdy entertainment from sports, telenovelas, and professional wrestling, not politics. But I just don't see how you can win an election without either inspiring or broadcasting a message of hope or doom. I can't imagine a quiet leader (a "Silent Cal") ever getting into office again, not when you need to compel 60+ million people to get off their sofas and vote for you. And when the country does have a lot of problems I suppose there's something natural about placing all your hope in an Obama or a Trump to singlehandedly fix them. Perhaps Biden, who's running on a few simple messages of returning to a better normal, is a healthy step away from our messiah complex. But this complex won't go away until the roots of our despair are pulled up, and I don't think they will be anytime soon. 






Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"This Land Is Our Land" comes to China


China Daily, a state-run English-speaking international Chinese newspaper, printed an Op-Ed, calling for the right to roam across the Chinese countryside. My book and advocacy get a mention.

One of the shortcomings of my book, This Land Is Our Land, is that I was unable to do a complete survey of all countries' right of access laws. I was only able to report on a handful of European countries that have clear laws and whose systems have been written about in English secondary sources.

If I had all the time in the world, I would have researched the systems of Asia, Africa, etc. But let me get to the point: it appears, from this column, that China, despite being communist, has as lousy a roaming culture as America.

It's nice to see my ideas being spread to faraway countries. And it's encouraging to see this printed in a state-run paper, and not some fringe periodical for radical ideas that'll never get to see the light of day.

Here's a link to a more readable version of the article.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich


History lovers, I highly recommend the comprehensive, 1,280-page, and irresistible The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. It was written in the 1960s and I’m sure a lot of the history has been updated, but I'm guessing it all stands the test of time since the author drew almost entirely from primary sources (speeches, documents, diaries, his own first-hand account as a foreign journalist). The exhaustive treatment might be too much for some (he spends what feels like one hundred pages on just one Hitler assassination attempt), but the writing is so clear and forceful that this savage bit of history was terribly enjoyable. It was fascinating watching the Nazis rise and great fun watching them fall. 

Stray thoughts: 

- Hitler could not have pulled off what he did (the near complete takeover of continental Europe) if it wasn’t for all of his pathetic appeasers. England was in denial. Poland was stupid. France had its head up its rear. Belgium was cowardly and Denmark and Norway were in la-la land. (Denmark was in denial of the Nazi’s invasion as they watched the Nazi ships approach their shore.) 

- The same can be said about the good Germans. In 1932, the Nazis received only 37 percent of the vote. But the remaining 63 percent of the country, which could have joined together and opposed the Nazis, were “too divided and shortsighted to combine against a common danger.”

- Hitler had a super power for self deception. I suspect, like any great liar, Hitler was able to convince himself of his own lies (such as the lie that Poland started the war) even if the lies were entirely baseless. This skill can be used harmlessly by athletes who gain an edge by convincing themselves of their superiority. The same tactic can be used by world leaders, who are able to get their underlings on the same page, provide a clear narrative for a gullible public, and sway weak leaders, such as Mussolini. Hitler creates lies, absorbs them, feels them, disperses them.

- If there’s such a thing as moral intelligence, Hitler had none of it. But he was brilliant in many ways. He understood geopolitics. He saw clearly the road to power (get legitimately elected, give a reason for average people to support them [stable employment], and make friends with institutions—military, church, etc.). He could see the weaknesses in his enemies. He recognized that it’s safe to expect complacency as the default disposition of peaceful nations. He had the brashness, boldness, and balls to take huge (calculated) risks. And he was imaginative. He had a knack for dreaming up the unthinkable. (Burning the Reichstag; initiating a dramatic airborne rescue of Mussolini when Mussolini’s gov’t turned on him; training a handful of glider units to land on and make quick work of the impregnable Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. His naval attacks on Denmark and Norway were completely unexpected, and he occupied Oslo, rather weirdly and definitely brazenly, by having a brass band march into the city.) 

- Needless to be said: Of course I don’t write any of the above as flattery for Hitler. It’s important to understand what combined set of traits helped the man take over the most powerful and developed chunk of the world. 

-What would the world look like today if Hitler didn’t make his back-breaking mistakes? What if he destroyed the 300,000+ Allied forces at Dunkirk (which he could have easily managed)? What if he maintained neutrality with Russia? Would Britain have eventually fallen? Would the Nazi ownership of Europe been too much for the U.S.? How long would the Third Reich have lasted? Would a Nazified Europe, before the turn of the century 21st Century, have crumbled piecemeal by resistance groups, or would the Nazis have managed to exterminate all dissent? 

- Non-Nazi Europe had far more people, land, and industry than Nazi Germany, but Nazi Germany nevertheless had clear advantages: 1) The Nazis, at first, were fighting a fragmented and uncoordinated collection of armies. The Nazis had a clear goal whereas the other European powers had their own selfish (and consequently self-defeating) interests. For instance, self-interested and shortsighted Poland was eager to snap up land from Czechoslovakia as it was being taken over by Nazis. 2) The German public was almost entirely deceived by its Nazi-controlled mass media. When the Nazis invaded Poland, the German people had been led to believe that Poland had initiated the conflict. 3) The Nazis had “no moral scruples.” 4) “The initiative of the attacker.” 5) And battle-tested confidence in themselves while the rest of Europe was still sharpening their bayonets. 

- Hilter’s gifts were rendered useless by his flaws. (His moral flaws, amazingly, did nothing to set him back, as he retained support from the German public and the great bulk of his army to the end.) But he was megalomaniacal: he bit off more than he could chew, he didn’t know how to strategically retreat; he underestimated his enemies (once they got their act together); and he eventually would come to dwell in a fantasy world, where facts no longer mattered (such as with the size of the mighty Russian Army advancing toward his shivering, ill-equipped troops). Attacking with full force, and placing his highest hopes and complete trust in the German troops, was a strategy that worked for the first couple of years, but he failed to recognize or adapt when it stopped working. He was a rageaholic—opinions contrary to his own were angrily dismissed; his ill-timed adventures in Yugoslavia were carried out because of a grudge; and he simply wasn’t a good listener. He yelled and ranted too much. 

- How could I read this book in 2020 and not think of Trump? I don’t think the comparison is entirely fair, but first the similarities: 1) Trump, too, is a heinous liar who will use propaganda to energize an aggrieved base. 2) Trump, in his wildest fantasies, might very well aspire to control the media, courts, and Congress (and his instincts seem entirely authoritarian), with which he could assume absolute power. 3) I believe a significant chunk of Trump’s base would be loyal to Trump up to and beyond the creation of death camps. 4) Trump is ultimately amoral and feels no shame for his misdeeds. 5) Trump demonizes the “other,” threatens to jail his opponents, incites domestic violence, discredits the media, and tries to create new realities from brazen falsehoods. 6) Trump campaigns on populism and rules like a plutocrat. 

But: 

1) Trump isn’t as smart as Hitler. Apart from his genius as a conman (and that isn’t an insignificant type of genius), he does not have Hitler’s knowledge of history and geopolitics. Trump can’t read the minds of other world leaders, and he is without talents for long-term-thinking. 

2) Trump has no grand vision beyond massaging his ego, burnishing his brand, and increasing his wealth and popularity. Hitler envisioned a Third Reich of a 1,000 years. Trump has a wall with a lot of holes in it. 

3) Trump isn't as evil or as ideological as Hitler. Trump is almost certainly racist, but he hasn't done anything to suggest that he wants to annihilate a whole ethnicity. 

4) The Nazi rise to power was swift, and it had a lot of momentum early on. The Nazis went from a few political victories to taking over the media, government, courts, police, and eventually military. Trump’s allies are comparatively paltry and he has not built up any momentum since he took office. Apart from Fox News, the mainstream media treats him fairly (and by fairly I mean they report on his nonsense competently). Even though Trump breezily dismisses “disloyal” government servants, it appears the intelligence services and military distrust him. And even though he's filling the courts with conservative justices, the right-leaning Supreme Court has just in the past few weeks ruled in ways unfriendly to the rightwing. Trump has nearly complete control of the Republican Party, but there are a few defectors within the party, which would have been unthinkable in Nazi Germany. 

-In closing, the U.S. is nowhere near where Germany was in the early 1930’s. Trump’s always-weak popularity continues to wane. People are marching in the streets, calling for equality and justice. The various strands of the Democratic Party have tied themselves to Biden (apart from a handful of history-disinclined Bernie Bros and Jill Stein supporters). And Trump in November will be kicked out of office (and perhaps even nudged into prison). The American experiment continues to reform itself, haltingly, and move forward, slowly.