George W. Bush presents his State of the Union address tonight. He’s sure to talk about spreading “freedom” and “democracy” the world over, the “ownership society,” and the greatness of our country. Here are some subjects he won’t talk about:
In The New York Review of Books (2/10/2005), historian Tony Judt cites authoritative data comparing the United States with Europe and the rest of the world. Where we were once “number one” in most everything from health and wealth to basketball, those days are going fast if not already gone
Of course, as Judt writes, “The U.S. is an excellent place to be rich.” As well it is: One percent of our people control 38 percent of our wealth. And American CEOs are paid 475 times more than their underlings, up from 40 times in 1980 when the Reagan administration took office. By contrast, the ratio between what CEOs and their workers make in other countries is 24:1 in Great Britain, 15:1 in France and 13:1 in Sweden. As Judt points out, this refers to salaries only, not corporate perks and financial assets.
While the rich get richer, the working and middle classes work harder for less money and fewer benefits. In 2000, Americans worked on average 1877 hours, hundreds of hours more than workers in the European Union. One reason for this disparity is that Americans aren’t allowed many paid vacations. In 2000, we averaged just four to ten days a year. By contrast, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, legally mandated paid leave for Austrian, Danish, Finn, French and Spanish workers was 30 days per year. Brits got a guarantee of four weeks and the hard-working Germans 24 days.
We Americans talk a lot about family values, but our policies don’t match our rhetoric. The European Charter of Fundamental Rights promises “the right to parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child.” This is a crucial time when parents and children bond. Portugal, one of the poorer countries in Europe, offers a three-month leave at full salary. Few Americans receive anything close to that kind of benefit.
Though we spend more money per capita on health care than any other country, and have excellent medical professionals and the latest technology, our health outcomes, in many medical categories, rate below that of most European countries.
This is a matter of access rather than medical care. Americans with health insurance get quality care. But the many millions who don’t have insurance can’t afford medical check-ups and can’t seek treatment until they are faced with very expensive and often life-threatening emergencies.
In Europe as in Canada, universal health insurance is a given; all citizens are assured access to health care as a right rather than as a benefit of employment or an individual out-of-pocket expense. As a result, average life expectancy is higher in most European countries than it is in America. This discrepancy is based largely on our abysmal rate of infant mortality, where we rank twenty-sixth, just above Lithuania.
This is a function of poverty more than anything else. The administration talks about being pro-life and of “no child [being] left behind,” but it cares more about the so-called “unborn” than it does about family planning and the health and well-being of real living babies, not to mention the mothers who have them and the parents who raise them.
Government disinterest in children, parents, and families (in terms of access to health care, amply-funded public schools, and affordable access to higher education) is reflected in hardening class structures and the diminution of social mobility.
David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the N.Y. Times, worries that “the family you were born into matters more and more to how you will fare in life.” In his column of 1/25/05, he talks about America’s new aristocracy, which is not based on merit, as is our tradition, but on inherited wealth -- the accumulation of which, one must add, is a deliberate goal of Bush administration policy-makers.
The United States used to be admired as “the land of opportunity.” We revel in classic stories of the children of immigrants and blue-collar workers who rise into the middle class and sometimes even earn great fortunes. This is not happening as much anymore, and “that’s a problem,” Brooks says, “because we are not supposed to have a hereditary class structure in this country.” But downsized and outsourced, with weaker unions, stagnant wages and shrinking benefits, it’s becoming harder for the middle-class, much less the working and unemployed poor, to rise above a social status dictated by birth.
On the other hand, there are some “firsts” that Bush can boast about. We’re first in the size of our government’s budget and trade deficits. We’re the world’s greatest consumers, even if most of it is financed by credit card debt, meaning that we’re number one in the world when it comes to living beyond our means.
We’re also champions in using up the world’s resources. The average American uses more natural resources than any other person in the world. But that word “average” is tricky here. It’s the very rich that consume most of the resources; it’s they who bring the national average up.
We’re also number one in many categories of international pollution. With just five percent of the world’s population, we’re responsible for 25% of the greenhouse gases that are most responsible for global warming.
Most of these statistics result from long-term government policies, especially deregulation, tax cuts for the very rich, laws inhibiting labor organizing, and the influence that big campaign contributors wield over our electoral politics. But the Bush administration pursues policies that exacerbate all these problems.
That’s the real state of the union, more accurate than what George W. Bush will talk about on Wednesday night. These are issues that the public needs to talk about, even in the face of our government’s disinterest and silence.
Other Articles by Marty Jezer
Children Will Pay