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What’s So Bad About a Welfare State?

May 6, 2009

Matthew Yglesias, in a commentary for The Daily Beast, tackles the right-wing criticism of the Obama economic agenda head on:

As the GOP slams Obama’s new budget for turning us all into welfare-mad Europeans… Matthew Yglesias asks: What’s so wrong with that?

The right-wing tendency to describe any financial plan by Democrats as “socialist” or “Marxist” most often leaves me with the impression that the accusers missed the first semester of Econ 101 and never bothered with History class at all. An opposition looses its credibility when its most fervent supporters are forced to abandon attempts at persuasive argument and instead rely on name-calling using labels that ceased to have any relevant meaning as far back as 1989. When I hear an Obama opponent calling him a socialist, I tend to dismiss the criticism…and the critic.

Yglesias takes a different tack. Gladly sliding down the slippery slope, he asks what would happen if the US were to import some of the welfare state policies embraced in Europe and Scandinavia. His conclusion:

It turns out that the European welfare state isn’t just a nice way to lend a helping hand. It does much more to promote intergenerational upward mobility than does an American positive attitude and a culture of achievement. The three most mobile countries in the survey were Denmark, Norway, and Finland—Scandinavian social democracies with cradle-to-grave public services. Four- and five-year-olds in Finland, for example, mostly attend high-quality publicly subsidized preschools irrespective of income, with poor children and rich children getting education that’s of equal quality. In the U.S., good center-based child care costs over $10,000 a year—beyond the reach of many parents. Consequently, we have class stratification already in place on the first day of kindergarten. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that our system sends the least-experienced, least-qualified teachers to the poorest schools. Nor by the fact that to grow up in a poor neighborhood in the United States means not only to grow up with humble homes, but to grow up in a dangerous environment. Europeans can avail themselves of excellent public transportation while Americans too poor to own a car suffer from crippling social and economic disadvantages, and European citizens from all walks of life can enjoy basically similar levels of health care.

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