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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Toilet Whispererer

To Whom It May Concern,

Wish me luck as I venture out to the hardware store in my quest to fix the world’s first indoor toilet located in the bathroom of my ancient apartment in Spain. If you don’t hear from me again just know that I love you. I only regret that I won’t be around one day to bail my grandchildren out of jail.  I don’t have any children yet but with my DNA I have to be realistic about the vocational prospects of my would-be progeny.

Even here in Spain people make jokes about how much money plumbers make, so calling in a professional is out of the question. I’ve probably watched four or five seconds of dozens of home improvement shows before switching to something, anything more entertaining so how hard could fixing a toilet be? First I go to the variety store to buy the right size wrench. The owners of the shop are Chinese immigrants with limited Spanish and I don’t know the word for “box wrench” so I try to mime it. They think that I’m playing charades and start shouting out movie titles.  So as not to offend anyone I pretend that the woman has won with her guess of The Wizard of Oz and start looking for the wrench on my own.

From here I go to the hardware store to buy the part I need except I have no idea what it’s called, not in Spanish, not in English, not in any language. My Spanish is good enough to explain it to the woman at the hardware store although in my rather literary Spanish I’m sure that I must sound like the Archduke of Bilgewater. “Good morning, my good woman. I’m looking for a curious little apparatus that releases the cistern of water above my commode thus purging the porcelain seat and then refilling aforementioned cistern.” She gets the gist of my story and sells me the part. I tip my hat, bow gracefully, and exit.

If nothing else I gained a valuable lesson which is that I can cross “plumber” off my list of possible careers.  I think I would have been less of a failure performing open-heart surgery without any training than I was fixing the crapper. At least my patient would have died immediately and not suffered indefinitely while leaking fluids, making creepy gurgling noises, and always being on the verge of an even greater catastrophe.  And if I had extra parts left over after the open-heart job I could have fed them to the cats on the balcony below my apartment. 

There is a definite lack of any sense of accomplishment when you’ve just spent the last two hours fixing something that worked just fine yesterday. With that said I still have the urge to walk down the street and shout out to the world, “My toilet flushes!  It really, really works! Come take a look if you don’t believe me.”

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Europe: The Enemy of American Conservatives

The Living Hell of Spain*

A question I have posed to American conservatives over the years is fairly simple and straightforward: can you point to the kind of society you are trying to build with your policies? This isn’t a trick question but it seems to confound a lot of people.  If the study of economics has taught us a thing it’s that we should learn from the past (economic history may be the only thing we know about economics). We have already tried these economic plans being put forth by modern American conservatives. We didn’t like the world back then and we spent the better part of the last century working to correct some of the worst flaws inherent in an unchecked capitalist system. At times Americans literally fought in the streets of our country to make it a better, more just place to live. A few more strokes of the pen, a few more regulations rolled back, a little more power taken away from voters and given to a few wealthy oligarchs and we may find ourselves right back where we started about 100 years ago.

With Ronald Reagan conservatives finally had the muscle to turn America around and send us hurtling back to the days of massive income disparity, insanely low taxes for our wealthiest elite, and a relatively powerless underclass with increasingly poor prospects to get ahead.  Europe took the other path of increasing its participation in social welfare programs, higher taxes, and the idea that a democratically-elected government can solve many of society’s ills. In Ronald Reagan’s worldview, government wasn’t the solution; it was the problem.  These days it’s hard to find a conservative that has anything good to say about a government by, for, and of the people.

Can you point to the kind of society you are trying to build with your policies? For the most part conservatives tend to avoid this question. They will stutter and mumble something about back when Americans had more freedom (oh how they love the word “freedom”), when the government stayed out of the way of business, when there were fewer pesky regulations.  The problem with this answer is that we can easily look back and see exactly what our society was like when government held less sway.  For the most part, it was a pretty horrible place to live unless you were rich. If you were to pose the same question to me I would point to the social democracies of Europe over the past 30 years as an example of the kind of place where America could take a few pointers.

Even the most casual glance at most of the countries in Western Europe is enough to realize that America has a lot to learn from their systems of health care, public transportation, the integrated use of the bicycle in urban life, low crime rate and almost complete absence of gun violence, and the strength and vitality or their middle class.  Yet to mention any praise for Europe is tantamount to treason in American conservative circles. Saying anything the least bit positive about Europe drives right-wingers crazy.  They will ignore statistics that rate American health care far below that of all European countries while they point out anecdotal horror stories about someone waiting for a kidney transplant in France.  A single train accident in Spain is enough for conservatives to completely discount this means of travel which flies in the face of their core tenets of individualism and freedom (as if sitting in a traffic jam in your Lexus is freedom).  Europe is the enemy for American conservatives. “France” is simply a conservative code word for socialist hellhole.  Of course, for anyone who has actually bothered to visit France, one of America’s strongest and oldest allies, it’s plain to see that it’s one of the most progressive and prosperous countries on the planet. 

America (along with Britain, for the most part) and Europe have taken two very different paths since America’s turn towards the ideals of the Chicago School of Economics coopted by Reagan back in 1980. I was taught these ideals as a young undergraduate economics major back at Indiana University. I doubt that I had a single professor who had anything good to say about the role of government in society.  I wonder what those old stuffed-shirts would say about the comparisons between  the privatization of British Rail since the Thatcher era and the government-backed train systems in the rest of Europe. My professors motto and rallying cry was that the private sector was always more efficient and more productive than the public sector. Of course they were all on the government’s dime as public university professors but that shouldn’t taint their politics.

The fact that a person’s personal situation is completely at odds with their ridiculous libertarian political stance hasn’t seemed to bother too many conservatives.  Ayn Rand accepted Social Security and Medicare after spending her adult life bad-mouthing government aid. George Will blasts the Public Broadcast System then praises one of their programs (Baseball by Ken Burns) as the best thing to air on American TV. Consistent doesn’t seem to belong in the vocabulary of the American far right.  I could name a dozen or so former military colleagues who went on to Air Force careers yet have taken an anti-government stance in their politics.

In the post-Reagan era one thing that certainly wasn’t consistent with American conservatives’ worldview was the rise of the European social democracies and their success in addressing a host of issues facing modern society. The policies of Western Europe were almost directly in contrast to those of the American right yet Europe wasn’t the socialist hellhole envisioned by Reagan’s disciples.  Many countries in Europe were way ahead of America in dozens of categories in quality of life indexes.  Call it an inconvenient truth. About the only weapon in the conservatives’ arsenal were anecdotal stories about how terrible life was in socialist Germany and even more socialist Finland.  

And then came the 2008 world financial meltdown.  Europe has been hit particularly hard by the tremendous economic downturn—at least most of Europe although Germany, partly because of better banking laws, came through with flying colors.  With unemployment levels reaching as high as 20% in some countries American conservatives could finally condemn socialist Europe without reservation, and condemn it they have.  The suffering and misery of Europe has taken top billing on all of the American right-wing propaganda mills. A worldwide financial crisis instigated by reckless American banking laws is just what conservatives needed to feel vindicated in their decades-long war against the European left. The left’s failure was now plain for everyone to see. What more proof did people need? There were protests in the streets and the limited violence was always highlighted on the far-right news broadcasts. Violent protests! It was too good to be true. Never mind the fact that you could find more violence in a single Colorado movie theater than in all of the street protests throughout Europe. Conservatives were claiming “Mission Accomplished.” Ronald Regan had won!

Americans conservatives have never had an example of the sort of laissez-faire paradise they envisioned for themselves by cutting taxes for the hyper-rich and slashing government regulations and services, but Europe for decades had shown just how much societies can achieve with the strength of government planning.  Socialized medicine has been flourishing everywhere in Europe while America’s private system excludes more and more of our citizens. European rail networks join their cities with trains at speeds of 300 kph while we languish in traffic and rely on heavy subsidies on gasoline and road construction.  Because we have allowed the private sector to dictate much of our urban planning (if you can call it that) we lag decades behind the path to sustainability sought by the urban centers of Europe where “sprawl” hardly enters the vocabulary.  

But now conservatives are certain that the grand example of the left is failing.  That is more important than the fact that conservatives still don’t have a workable model for their ideas outside of Ayn Rand novels and the fantasies of Milton Friedman.  It also doesn’t matter that the United States is in full economic crisis (they blame Obama), nor the fact that we had a much stronger economy to begin with. From the news outlets dominated by the right you would think that Europe is on the brink of total anarchy, that it is only a matter of time before some sort of world war erupts again, that people will be slaughtering each other in the streets as they fight over the last loaves of bread.

There is one huge flaw in the thinking of American conservatives: things aren’t that bad in Europe. Sure, unemployment here in Spain is at record levels and things aren’t exactly rosy in Greece, Italy, and Portugal. But the Spanish have survived a hell of lot tougher times than these and they will survive this crisis without abandoning the social welfare network they have built in the last 30 years. No one, and I mean no one has mentioned abandoning their excellent health care system that covers every last citizen in the country. People here even rejected a modest co-pay for doctor visits (something I actually favor). They rejected a proposal to charge long-term hospital patients for meals.  National health care is in the Spanish Constitution and for them it is as important as gun rights are for Americans.

I’ve had a number of visitors from the States this summer and I have politely asked them all to take a good look around as they visit Spain and the rest of Europe. I have asked them if they think Europe is in the sort of desperate crisis portrayed in much of the American media.  I made a point of showing my visitors the excellent mass transit systems here in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona. I’ve asked them to bear witness to the fact that there isn’t anything like ghettos here in Spain, at least not like the American version of ghettos.  These are hard times for many Spaniards but you don’t see legions of miserable people or homeless as you do in America. There aren’t vast swaths of the country languishing in poverty and crime. There are no Gary Indianas or Detroits. Gun related murders are almost unheard of and any sort of violent crime is rare. I live in a city whose size would rate among the top 15 in the United States and I wouldn’t hesitate to pass through a single neighborhood in the middle of the night for fear of being a victim of crime.

I would challenge anyone to show me an American city that compares to Valencia as far as its service to the citizens. Valencia has a great network of bike paths; an excellent public transportation system that includes buses, an underground metro, trolleys, and a bike-share system that are all linked to the regional and local train network; public hospitals that are rated among the best in the world; and a gorgeous city filled with parks, squares, beaches, and a blend of ancient and modern architecture. I have a front-row seat and I just don’t see the chaos and horror depicted in the American media about the crisis in Europe. This sentiment is further elaborated in a post on Andalucia.com:

Earlier this month, I saw a letter to The Daily Telegraph, the UK’s favourite Tory broadsheet rag, reprinted in my favourite news magazine The Week in their “Pick of the week’s correspondence”. Since it was in praise of Malaga, one of Andalucia’s most important cities, I thought it would be highly appropriate to quote in this blog.

The writer, from Cheltenham, heartland of solid English values, says this:

“I have just spent three days in Malaga. The marble pavements sparkled and teams of smartly dressed workers cleaned and polished the town. The flower beds around the trees in the squares were lovingly tended and the rows of beautiful shops were packed with expensive goods, with apparently no shortage of customers. Cafes and restaurants, full of local people, were open until the early hours of the morning.”

Disgusted from Cheltenham then goes on to compare his home town unfavourably with the Spanish city, citing dirty streets, cracked pavements sprouting with weeds, no cleaners, overflowing bins, boarded-up shops, cheap boutiques and run-down bars.

His closing comment is a corker:

“If austerity measures need to be taken across Europe, it seems that the Spanish people will have to see a significant reduction in their standard of living just to get down to British level. I dread to think what further cuts will do to ours.”

While it seems to me that he is more concerned with the superficial appearance of such a beautiful, historic Cotswold town than the state of its libraries, education or health facilities, his point is an interesting one.

American conservatives are trying to cut public services as fast as they possibly can. They have waged a war against public school teachers and local police. To conservatives every penny we spend to improve the state of our cities is being stolen from the (hyper-rich) tax payer. Republicans say that we can’t afford these things, as if schools and police and fire departments are luxuries. Their plan is to allow the hyper-rich to get even richer and somehow this will make life better for all of us.

* The photo above was taken in the city of Castellon, 40 minutes north of Valencia on the outstanding local train. Its population is about 100,000 and it has been hit pretty hard by the downturn. I’m sure that there are countless stories there of hardship and struggle but the city itself looks fantastic. It is modern, clean, and very pedestrian friendly. In short, it’s a great place to live. Even with the hard times no one in Spain is talking about the drastic cuts everyone thinks are inevitable in the United States. People here pay a lot of taxes (48% at the top bracket) but they expect a lot for their money. They expect…they demand to live in great cities. And this is Spain I’m talking about. If you want to see even better examples of the gains of European social democracies take a look at Belgium, or Holland, or Denmark.

Here is one example from the New York Times where one businessman moving to England makes up an exodus. The story (a better word in this case than "article") has this leading line: "But once under way, the flight of bank deposits can easily overwhelm rational facts and analysis." It's like the NYT is praying for the Spanish economy to go to shit. Ridiculous reporting, if you can call it that.