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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.


  1. "...but you failed to differentiate yourself from the conservatives which you mock..."

    Your reading skills are apparently very poor, because Leftbanker spends the entire essay differentiating between his views about European social-democratic societies and how well they function and how American conservatives like to claim Europe is "failing," especially during the current financial crisis.

    Leftbanker does nothing BUT differentiate himself from conservative views in this essay: it's about as apparent as the sun that shines in the sky on a clear day. So your comment is quite silly or you simply cannot absorb what you read with any kind of intellectual efficacy.

    I just spent two weeks in Spain, in Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona. Unemployment is high and the economy is stagnant, but I didn't see any suffering, certainly not the kind of suffering and abject poverty I see in my own home city, Philadelphia. The streets in Spain are clean, and people still enjoy life with a great degree of comfort, safety, and well being; they still have access to good health care and education, and if they lose their job, they have benefits that keep them from living in abject poverty or starving to death.

    Things are tough in Spain, but the social safety net has cushioned the fall much better than in the USA, where tens of millions go without health coverage, where only 40% the jobless receive unemployment benefits (the other 60% suffer), and where the crumbling education systems in most of the urban centers is failing to help our most disadvantaged children uplift themselves.

    Conservatives largely ignore all our social ills in the USA and furthermore ignore how European social democracies work better for all citizens, even during a nearly crippling failure of the capitalist aspects of their economies.In Spain, it was capitalism that failed, not socialism. Socialism saved Spain's people from an even more damaging fall than they currently face.

  2. "Very few self proclaimed liberals of European decent seem to be genuine and open minded."

    And you know this because you've met all 100 million of them in America, right? Gotcha.

    "The fact that you generalized black men into violent, crime ridden people shows your true feelings about them. "

    I am merely stating the facts: nearly 5,000-6,000 black males murder each other each year across America. How do I "feel" about this genocide? I despise it and try to do everything in my power to help alleviate it. I vote for elected officials who can make a difference. I donate money to causes that tackle problems like guns, violence, poverty, etc. I participate in urban culture by living in the fifth largest city in the USA, by paying its rather high 4.5% wage tax, by voting, by participating in democracy, by serving in the military for 8 years, and by my daily living.

    "I'm sure your only concern is if they still have khakis at banana republic as opposed to being a real progressive and finding a way to help and stop injustice that happens entire racial groups of people."

    In logic we call the above piffle a "straw man" argument. You are merely projecting your own prejudicial and ignorant thoughts on me, because clearly I do not think like what you try to project upon me in the above comment. I'm sorry you are incapable of constructing substantive arguments and must resort to such childish means of projecting your own ill-conceived thoughts on my own. Perhaps you should take a class or two on logic and rhetoric.

    "One last thing, "ghetto culture" doesn't scare me nearly as bad as the neo nazi culture that a lot of young white kids associate with."

    I see, so the 5,000-6,000 black makes murdered every year by other black males DOESN'T concern you? Let's be honest: 5,000-6,000 black males in the USA are not being murdered every year by skinheads, neo-nazis, or other racist hate groups. Sorry to bust your bubble, but your logic here is childishly flawed. The biggest threat to black males in the USA is other black males.

    "Why don't we hear more about these kids and only the "bad" black ones?"

    Well, maybe YOU don't hear about them, but I do. Having said that, the sheer magnitude of black crime in America is overwhelmingly more prevalent than a few fringe wacko white kids. In Philly, nearly 300 black males are murdered by other black males EVERY YEAR, year in, year out. It's a genocide that never ends. While I do abhor white supremacists, neo-nazis, et al., these groups do not commit a vast majority of violent crimes against black people in America. May I suggest you check the crime stats published by the FBI as a place to start?

    "Nothing will change your views as a "I'm a privileged, white, meritocratic liberal" that ironically shares the same beliefs as the repubs in terms of race relations."

    Once again, you fail to argue anything I actually said and insert another irrational straw man argument to project what you THINK I think, but you are largely clueless because you don't know me well enough to make such outlandish and silly statements.

    I feel sorry for you on many levels, but at the base level your problem is you are intellectually immature and have trouble constructing substantive arguments based on fact and reason. Your logical skills are puerile and ill-formed.

    It's difficult to converse with someone so childish and irrational. Really. I encourage you to read more, to study more, and perhaps learn at the least the rudiments of logic, reason, and informed debate, and when you are ready to uplift your currently poor abilities to a level that might make you interesting, I will be the first to engage you in informed debate. But for now, no thanks.

  3. The topic is how conservatives have demonized the liberal European societies and why I believe Europe has done a much better job building great cities and taking care of the needs of the people. This has nothing to do with race so stick to the topic or get deleted.

  4. "Just because black people live in a neighbor, doesn't make the neighborhood dangerous than a white one."

    My, my, my, I don't mean to point out the stupidity of this argument,but the facts speak otherwise.

    This brilliant data analysis of murders in Philadelphia the last 23 years will maybe enlighten you to the genocide just in the city of Philadelphia, where the murder rate in predominantly black neighborhoods is of such a higher magnitude than the white ones that the facts, as presented in the maps and data in this piece, cannot, and do not, lie. In Philly the white:black ratio is, more or less, about 50:50 in terms of overall population. This varies a bit high and low on each side, but for the purpose of this data analysis below it's about correct enough.

    Have a look if you dare to see real data.


  5. I am sure if Spain, France, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, or Sweden has such appallingly high murder rates, regardless of race, they would take drastic action to decrease these murders.

    Racism is a problem in America, but to say white conservatives and white liberals offer the same magnitude of racism is a ridiculous notion. Maybe elitist, white, educated, meritocratic liberals are not "of" the ghetto, but I would bet a majority of them vote for, and support, policies that help support, protect, and uplift disadvantaged people of all races, creeds, etc.

    I cannot say this about conservatives. Ever since Reagan was elected in 1980 the right wing in America has moved further right and has done everything in its power to dismantle the social-democratic New Deal and Big Society programs that leveled the playing field.

    But, you know, I rely on facts, those pesky things that are often antithetical to "feelings" and "intuition." Or prejudice. Or stupidity. Understanding facts first requires that one places great value on logic, reason, scientific method, and the fundamental truths such intellectual tools and methodology reveal. If not, then the argument is lost before it begins.

  6. Here's how conservatives express their racism:


    Nice people.

  7. "Growing up in a small town in Peirce county in western WA..."

    "I went to school in a "safe" predominately white community that is strictly far left."

    "One last thing, "ghetto culture" doesn't scare me..."

    Well, yeah, obviously because you haven't lived in it much. What exactly do you know about it from experience? Being black doesn't necessarily qualify you as a ghetto expert.

    Maybe if you lived in North Philly or South Chicago or West Baltimore, you might have a deeper understanding, and fear, of the violence and mayhem that cripples these mostly black neighborhoods. I guess in your posh white village in the middle of nowhere you didn't experience the daily horror of gun violence and murder that is daily life in urban ghettos. In Philly a black male is murdered nearly every day of the year. 300 a year.

    Ghetto culture scares me. And angers me. And calls me to action.

  8. Wow. These comments responding to the original comment are appalling to say the least....

    SMH, white male privilege and superiority complex was at play pretty hardcore in this comment section.

    1. You obviously see only what you want to see, anything to support your narrative, whatever that may be.


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