Government should spend for people’s benefit

It was a small tidbit of news, something just read off the ticker and then lost in the maelstrom of Lou Dobbs’ resignation, Sarah Palin’s new book and the low expectations for Obama’s China trip: For the third quarter in a row, the European Union’s economy grew—officially marking the end of recession there.

Where it is reported at all, this story is downplayed—the recovery is small, the jobless rate is expected to rise, it’s driven by exports not consumer spending or investment, etc., etc.

Why all the lack of interest? Could it be that Europe has something we don’t really want to talk about? What is their dirty little secret? (And how quickly can we bootleg it?)

Flashback to March: Then there was a big hoopla as Obama tried to pressure the Europeans to cut social spending and bolster their economy, U.S.-style—with big bailouts to banks and corporations and other kinds of stimulus spending, just like we were doing. No thanks, they told us, politely but firmly. We like our safety net just fine over here. You can keep your corporate bailouts.

Pundits leapt on this story back then, dourly predicting (in good pundit fashion) that Europe’s recovery would lag far behind ours. After all, everyone “knows” that’s the cost of spending (investing) heavily in the social safety net.

Is that it? Is the dirty little secret that a big social safety net and economic resilience are not contradictions in terms? Well, as a matter of fact, yes. We have to downplay this story because it flies in the face of the economic ideology at the core of our efforts to unravel the New Deal safety nets. Since the 1980s, we’ve told ourselves that tax-funded programs to support the poor and unemployed—as well as to fund education, health care and other benefits for all citizens, regardless of wealth or employment status—are a bad expenditure of tax money. It is better to cut taxes, the theory goes, so people have more money to make choices in the free market. Those who can’t afford such things or are unemployed are not our problem.

Our current economy is the ruins left in the wake of this ideology. As bad as things are economically, though, it is not the only victim.

What Europe has built upon was largely an export from us via the post-WWII Marshall Plan. In the intervening years, European countries have expanded that initial safety net to include guaranteed, high-quality education for all citizens through college; universal health care; job retraining opportunities for displaced workers; and initiatives to support workers who need to take temporary leaves to care for ill family members or newborn children. Just for starters.

Oh. Now you want us to be like Europe? The conservatives sneer. Well, is that really so bad?

Not only has Europe’s economy shown stronger resilience to global market instability, but it has also been more quick to innovate and respond to emerging trends—like green technology—than ours. European educational standards continue to rise, while our education system now ranks at the bottom of the industrialized world. The same is true of technological and transportation infrastructure, health care and other indicators of well-being, which are declining stateside. With among the lowest safety-net expenditures among the states, Nevada is approaching third-world levels in several categories of poverty—uninsured children, addiction and crime.

Europe’s dirty little secret that we don’t want to face is that a strong social safety net is necessary for a strong economy, not the lie we’ve been feeding ourselves all these years. President Obama understands this, but he faces stiff opposition from many quarters, including our own Nevada congressmembers and governor.

So, tell me again why we can’t be like Europe?