Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

Contact me          Home page

The Myth About America: ruminations from an expat

In 1991, I moved to Denmark to accept a once-in-a-lifetime-job, expecting it to end after two years, at which time I'd return to California. I was 49 years-old and inclined to believe what I'd been told by politicians and taught in school: America is the greatest nation on earth.

It took me less than a year to see how untrue this is. Growing up American means unconsciously absorbing nationalist propaganda while living in ignorance.

There are societies far superior to ours.

Compared to Scandinavia, America is a dysfunctional society in which the super rich (1%) own 33% of the national wealth and 37.9 million citizens live in poverty, including 13 million children; where infant mortality is higher than in some Third World nations; where unskilled workers are hopelessly stuck on the bottom without training; where state-of-the-art medicine is inaccessible to the majority; where society puts a high number of its citizens into prisons, impacting minorities the most; where one third of Americans own a gun and where, in 2021, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries.

I. Two types of freedom: freedom to and freedom from.

There are two ways to look at Government. One is to say that it restricts individual freedom through specific laws, legal restrictions, and policies. The other says Government represents all citizens and wants to ensure a level playing field through legislation so that everybody gets a fair chance in life.

Theoretically, America offers opportunities to upgrade one's material life by offering freedom to make and keep as much money as it is legally permissible. But what about freedom from? Freedom from poverty and ill health? Freedom from unfulfilled human potential?

Americans believe in only one kind of freedom: freedom to.

We are taught that "the individual" is more important than "the community," making it a "me" culture. In contrast, the Scandinavian welfare state puts emphasis on "us," organizing a society in which equal opportunity for everybody is real, not a myth.

How do they do it?

It starts with their conception of workers: people whose labor contributes to the economic health of society, regardless of the job status. A kindergarten teacher is just as important as a doctor. Manual laborers, such as plumbers, carpenters or bricklayers are just as important as accountants, managers, and politicians.

Labor in Denmark is highly organized with union membership at 70% plus. Wages are determined through negotiations between unions and employers, without Government involvement. This is why all workers get a living wage, why everybody gets six weeks of paid vacation a year and a 37-hour work week.

Restaurant waiters/waitresses don't have to supplement their wages with tips because they are paid a decent wage. Starbucks' refusal to comply with Danish labor laws kept them out of Denmark until they agreed to the unions' terms.

The state taxes everybody's income at a high rate which, when combined with high taxes on corporate profits, redistributes the national wealth through "refunds." In this way, all citizens get "free" education, "free" health care, and subsidized professional childcare for preschool-age children.

When Americans criticize Scandinavian welfare states for being "socialist," they fail to acknowledge that it is private enterprise that fuels the engine. Without Denmark's robust private sector of capitalist enterprises, the bills would never get paid.

Don't Scandinavians resent paying for other people's medical expenses? A few, but they re an exception. Most Danes as well as Norwegians and Swedes - fully endorse the egalitarian society. They understand that inequalities of income, wealth and power are related to health. They recognize that a healthy society benefits everybody because the system needs people to work, and illness takes people out of the workforce.

What about education? Training? If you qualify, Denmark offers "free" higher education in any academic subject of your choice. Or, if you prefer, you can get "free" training in electronics, carpentry, cooking, automobile mechanics, landscape gardening, etc. all the skills a society needs to function. Many businesses pay for their employees to take courses that upgrade their skills.

Think about America and how some workers are stuck at the bottom of the ladder, justified by a belief that people are paid what they're "worth." This attitude suggests that in a free market economy, nothing can be done to change an individual's unfortunate circumstances. But this is not true. The welfare state proves it.

Unlike many Americans who only pay lip service to democratic ideals, Scandinavians truly believe in a democratic system of government. But democracy only works, they believe if the people who vote are economically invested, informed, and educated.

Consider the fact America does not have a fully educated population: only 85% graduate from high school and only 33% have college degrees. Without education, citizens become increasingly excluded from good jobs, political power, and social capital.

II. Gender Equality

One of the first words I learned in Danish was ligestilling, meaning equality. Danish (Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish) women have equal footing with men in society because their intelligence and skills are considered necessary for a strong national economy. This is reflected by 52 weeks of paid parental leave and state-subsidized childcare.

All families in Denmark with pre-school-age children are guaranteed professional childcare, paid with fees, subsidized 66% through taxes. This is the only way educated mothers of young children can leave the home, use their education, and participate in the economy.

Think of all the educated American women who struggle to get back into the workforce after being at home with small kids for 10 or so years. Some of them take trivial jobs paying minimum wage, only to see their meager income evaporate into hourly fees for unprofessional babysitters. Most of them have husbands who ask: "Why bother?"

Think back to 1963, the year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. The premise of her controversial book was that university-educated women belong in the workplace, not at home waxing floors, cooking casseroles, and pretending that homemaking is fulfilling.

American conservatives have never agreed with Friedan and call any public support for childcare socialistic and anti-maternal. This mentality continues today to dominate the narrative, making tax-supported, subsidized professional childcare unavailable to American families. Until this is changed, American women with small children will be marginalized, unable to use their education for the nation's benefit.

III. Being Average is the Norm

Conservatives believe that without hierarchical authority, human society would dissolve into chaos, and America as a "me" society is a prime example. By contrast, American society is like a layer cake with, arguably, nine layers.

On top are the super-rich, one-tenth of 1%. They own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent put together. Then the ordinary wealthy, what we generally call "rich people." What follows are the various levels of America's famous Middle Class. First, the Upper Middle-Class, then the Middle Middle-Class, and then the Lower Middle-Class. Finally, the Lower-Class. First, the Upper Lower-Class, then the Middle Lower-Class and then the Lower Lower-Class. At the very bottom are the poverty poor.

Denmark's "us" society is not vertical, but horizontal with an enormous middle class. Doctors, college professors, lawyers, and anyone with "authority" are addressed by their first names.

The consequence of "flat" demographics without hierarchies means average becomes the norm. Danish society was designed specifically to give the average man and woman the best life possible by giving everyone an equal chance. I find it more than ironic that America's myth of "equal opportunity" is not universally available in American society, yet it is outside the nation.

America, however, is a work in progress, and this is exactly why we need more "progressives" in Government. Moderates mean well, but too often, their policies leave us merely treading water. Unfortunately, America's electoral system makes progressive Democrats an enemy of moderate Democrats by positioning them as "spoilers."

Proportional representation would prevent this by giving us four political parties instead of two. Moderate Democrats would be one party, Progressive Democrats would be another. Republicans would also be in two groups: Small "D" democratic Republicans, and authoritarian neofascist Republicans who do not really believe in democracy.

If anyone wants to learn more, I recommend Robert Reich's lectures available now on YouTube: robert reich lectures wealth and poverty in america


Top       Contact me         Home page

Page created October 14, 2023