Tuesday night's Iowa caucuses brought Mitt Romney one more heavy step closer to his inevitable nomination. So, it's time to pay even more attention to what he's saying on the stump.
Here's what Mitt Romney said before the Iowa caucuses: "I kind of like America. I'm not looking for it to be fundamentally transformed into something else. I don't want it to become like Europe."
Romney is a world traveler, who lived in Europe and speaks fluid French, but it's a pathetic commentary on the current state of American politics that in order to get votes, he believes that he has to pretend to be more xenophobic than he probably really is.
I kind of like America, too, but that doesn't mean that I also don't want us to become more like Europe in some respects.
Let's start with basic health. Life expectancies in the U.S. and Europe are virtually identical at about 78 years. But while 45 million Americans go without health insurance, residents of the European Union enjoy virtually universal coverage, and yet the percentage of GDP spent on health care is 16% in the U.S. and around 10% in most E.U. nations.
So, Europeans spend less to get universal coverage with the same results at the end of life and better results at the beginning. The infant mortality rate in the U.S. is 6.2 per 1,000 live births; it's 5.7 in the E.U.
But doesn't America have a stronger economy?It is true that Americans have a higher per capita GDP than Europeans, but what's really important is how that wealth is spread out. The real question isn't how many Donald Trumps there are but how average Americans and average Europeans live. And in that regard average Europeans get to share in a much larger share of their nation's wealth than average Americans.
The best way to compare apples to apples is with something called the Gini Index. In the Gini Index, 1 represents perfect equality in which everyone gets the same income while 100 represents total inequality in which one person gets all the income. So, the higher the number the greater the income inequality. The U.S. scores 45 on the Gini Index while the E.U. scores 30.
So both America and the E.U. are prosperous societies, but the E.U. has much better income distribution. And they accomplish their prosperity in a much more sustainable way. The U.S. uses about 221 tons of oil equivalent to produce every million dollars of GDP, while the comparable number for Britain is 141, for France 170 and for Germany 164.
But what about crime? Aren't we safer in the U.S. with all those guns? Well, it is true that we're armed to the teeth. In 2007, there were nearly 89 guns for every 100 Americans. The highest rate of gun ownership in the E.U. was in Finland where they had 32 per 100 residents. But the homicide rate in the U.S. is 5.2 per 100,000, while the comparable number in Britain is 1.5, 1.3 in France, and 0.8 in Germany. According to the latest statistics available, there are between 9,000 and 10,000 murders per year using firearms in the U.S. In Germany, the E.U. country with the next highest figures, it's 200 to 300.
I realize this is an especially bad time to be defending Europe, what with their debt crisis and fighting over the future of the euro. But this looks to me like a necessary shaking out that will eventually result in an even stronger Europe. In the end they only have two ways to go. They can abandon the euro or they can become more unified with a real central bank and some common budgeting and taxing standards. It's too late to turn back on the their common currency, so the other path is the one that's likely. It'll be a rough ride, but in the end they might come out of it more competitive than ever.
And by the way, while the euro zone struggles with the excessive debt of a few of their member nations, the personal savings rate of Europeans runs in the 10% to 13% rate per year compared to near zero for Americans in most recent years. If European taxation rates are so high, how do they pull that off? Maybe it's because big expenses like health insurance are already covered through their taxes more efficiently than if they were paying for it as individuals. Remember that Americans pay 60% more of GNP for health care than Europeans.
Through countless personal and political decisions over two centuries, Americans have made choices about how we want to live. We've chosen big houses and big cars, relatively low taxes, a relatively thin social safety net but a large, expensive military. We tolerate a gun-saturated and violent society and economic inequality and, compared to other wealthy societies, we still waste energy like there's no tomorrow.
My argument is that those choices aren't sustainable in the long run. Global climate change, the cost of fossil fuels, and demographics will drive us away from big houses and cars. A rapidly aging society will call for a stronger social safety net. The withering costs of maintaining a huge military will give way to a recognition that we shouldn't be expected to foot the bill for a disproportionate part of the world's security system. Through Occupy Wall Street we're already seeing a grassroots-organized pushback to the highest income inequality since the eve of the Great Depression. And sooner or later you'd think that we'd come to our senses about gun proliferation.
It's time for America to start thinking about taking a new place in the world alongside other prosperous and mature nations like England, France, and Germany. We should measure success not by the number of war planes we have or how many billionaires live here, but by the quality of life, the health, and the security of the average American. By that measure Europe shouldn't be ignored or denigrated, but studied to see what policies we can import.
Paul Krugman has described western European society since World War II as being the most humane in human history. Europe is far from perfect, but to dismiss European policies as unworthy of us is just short-sighted. A guy like Mitt Romney should know better and my guess is he does. He just can't afford to say it.