As the Rerun Airs: Is the United States Finally Ready for Social Democracy?
by Gregory G. Jackson
The year is 2012 and the United States once again finds itself in the midst of what is—and certainly will continue to be—an exceedingly contentious race for the highest office in the land. Attacks abound; the gavels have been raised, calling the partisan conventions to order for the purpose of anointing the nominees and their respective party platforms. Mitt Romney will carry the Republican standard while the incumbent president Barack Obama will be the standard bearer for the Democrats. Though the actors may change every four years what we are witness to is the rerun of a poorly acted, directed, and produced television mini-series that airs as often. It launches with leaders and strategists from within the incumbent's camp contending that they have the key to moving the nation forward, but are being stymied by an opposition party refusing to act—regardless of necessity—out of concern that the incumbent may gain momentum going into the general election. The opposition party then posits that they are simply being deliberate with the intent of identifying necessary long-term solutions unlike the incumbent who is posturing and taking actions that merely pander to the electorate. Is it really possible that our leaders are this out of touch? This is just one question begged by Main Street America. Struggling to pull itself up from the most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression the country is pleading with its leaders to do one simple thing—lead. Lead by stimulating the economy, creating jobs, by bringing a sense of security to Main Street, and resurrecting the hope of what seems to be a fairy tale--the American Dream. The rerun is airing and the time has come for the channel to be changed. Is the United States finally ready for social democracy?
As the rerun airs the United States is withdrawing from the longest war in the nation's history. Estimates have the aggregate Unites States price tag of our wars since 9/11 between $4.0 and $6.0 trillion. This amount is just slightly below the annual gross national product of Poland, Taiwan, Australia, Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia combined. Another statistic that bears presentation is that the United States expended $711.0 billion for the military in 2011 comprising 41% of the world share of military spending. China followed with a distant $173.0 billion or 8.2 % of world spending, and Russia with $72.0 billion or 4.1%. To place these expenditures in context it is important to note that China has 19.2% of the world's population while the United States' has just 4.5%. Yes, the United States with less than 5% of world's population is the global leader in military spending, and is 80% higher than the next closest country which just happens to be the most populated. Though national security is an imperative that cannot be neglected a line needs to be drawn. How much is too much? It is no secret that we are a nation know for our excesses.
As the rerun airs there is a health care crisis that one would think inconceivable within the borders of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Though the ink is still yet dry from the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, venomous opposition abounds. This opposition exists despite the fact the 16.3% (49.9 million) of Americans lack any health insurance coverage at all, and more incredulous is that 9.8% of those uninsured are children under 18 years of age. To take this issue one step further between 2.8 and 3.3 million people are affected by medical bankruptcy each year. A country that boasts the mantra "opportunity for all" apparently finds it acceptable to add insult to injury to those who are in the greatest need. The findings of a 2008 commissioned study revealed that the cost of covering the uninsured in the United States was calculated at $126.0 billion a year, $135.4 billion in current dollars adjusting for inflation. Ironically, a reduction of 19% ($135.4 billion) in military spending, all things being constant, would still allow the United States to lead the proverbial pack in military spending with 70% more than China. The Affordable Care Act should not be maligned but instead lauded as a necessary first step in securing a fundamental human right for all—the right to accessible and affordable health care. This legislative effort to better the lives of millions has been met with a declaration of political war. These opponents are the same individuals and groups who would prefer to stand with powerful interests versus Main Street America, who believe that quality health care is not a human right but instead a privilege. Are these the same Americans who view a quality education as right belonging to the privileged?
As the rerun airs we are reminded that though education is supposed to be the great equalizer access to a quality primary and or secondary education is not equal, and in fact for some remains unattainable. We have what can only be called a failed system, one that has allowed our next generation to be shaped by individual state and local education structures. These are the same structures that until ordered by the highest court in the land accepted separate but equal. These are the same structures that have permitted the bulk of education funding to be dependent on property taxes. Has separate but equal truly been corrected? It has been shown that the unequal distribution of property tax revenues available for education within a state results in spending disparities among its school districts. Do not believe for a minute that our children do not recognize this fact. The children in our most disparate of neighborhoods and communities have been presented with the stark realization that "those who need the most get the least." What does it say for our country's future when our children—the next generation, see no value in education? Of our citizenry between 16 and 24 years of age 8% of African Americans, 12.4% of American Indians, and 15.1% of Hispanics are drop-outs. They have identified other alternatives to be more important or valuable than an education. Our children are acquiescing to a system that has failed them thus laying the groundwork for a greater divide between the "haves" and "have nots". The numbers tell a troublesome story and provide a bleak picture for the future of our nation. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks the United States 25th in math and 17th in science. The World Economic Forum ranks the quality of our math and science education at 48th. Just a quarter of a century ago the United States led the world in secondary and higher education graduation rates. We find now ourselves ranked 20th and 16th respectively. How can we continue to permit the erosion of our society and middle class by the minimization of the great equalizer?
As the rerun airs Main Street slips down a slope which has an ever increasing incline. Those slipping are desperately clawing, with every fiber of their being, so not to drop off into the proverbial abyss where return or recovery is ever so uncertain. In addition to the described disconcerting facts it would remiss not to mention the impact of poverty from the oldest to the youngest generations. Our growing senior population has earned the right to retire. However, today, this much awaited life milestone has become elusive if not impossible for some. Many fear that without continuing to work they will end up in a state poverty. Of our fellow Americans 15.1% currently live at or below the poverty level. Of the next generation—children 18 and under—22% or 16.4 million are in poverty. If it is not your child be thankful and realize that it is quite likely the one either sitting in front, behind, or to one of the sides of your child in their classroom.
All these social ills continue and remain to a great extent unabated. These issues seem to be nothing more than fodder for at times a dysfunctional electoral, political, and governmental system. Make no mistake, notice has been given. The Occupy Movement, for all its shortcomings, has made it clear that an economic elitist society and the current political system cannot and will not place pluralism in a corner. Regrettably, the movement's lack of national structure and hierarchy has kept it at bay, but we would be remiss to believe that they—or perhaps another group—will not pick up their standard and move it forward. If we do ignore these voices of discontent a very real risk of repeating the uglier parts of history exists.
The question that is being begged (openly by some, with discretion by others, and restated here) asks if the United States is finally ready for social democracy. I contend that the United States must, through democracy, make a stronger and more inclusive society—one where every member can have the opportunity to reach, perhaps even grab and hold, the brass ring we know as the American Dream. Yes, social democracy and capitalism can and must coexist.
The social democratic state whose time has come is rooted in the writings of Eduard Bernstein and not in the wild conjectures of those entrenched in the status quo by personal, political, or financial self-interest. The United States—if the political will exists and the electorate is willing to shun its apathy—can move from backsliding to a position of renewed universal reverence. We can be a country that truly leaves no one behind through an equitably funded nationally run education system, affordable and accessible national health care, affordable and accessible child and elder care, and poverty relief. And though the federal government should distance itself from state ownership there are times when a consistency and equity in the most critical of areas dictate that the injection of the central government is most necessary in best serving the interest of the democratic society. It will be the codifications of the entitlement to these basic social rights that will ultimately level our now steeply tilted playing field and strengthen versus erode our civil society. In addition, let us not forget that the rise of the administrative state—government through the increase in policy and programs—has collaterally given rise to our economy and capitalism. It was Bernstein who said that imminent collapse of the existing economic system should neither be expected nor desired as part of the creation of the social democratic state.
As the rerun airs there will be those who will say we cannot afford this "leveling of the playing field." The truth is how can we not afford to change when the need and times dictate? All rests with identifying our national priorities—the priorities of the governed - for today, tomorrow, and generations to come. We can start by looking at the beginning of this essay and our military funding. The need for a strong national defense goes without question, but we also want a strong nation to defend.
To those who would say we are a country founded on the fundamental belief of equal opportunity not equal outcomes I say I concur. However, let equal opportunity truly be equal and not politically correct rhetoric. Where has the equal opportunity been for the unemployed factory worker who had their job relocated abroad, the laborer who built homes but became a victim of an unethical banking industry, the hungry child who could belong to anyone of us, or the veteran who did all and more of what we asked? Let the primary and secondary education of our children in the inner-city of Chicago equal the quality of education it the most affluent suburbs. Let there be recognition that accessible and affordable health care is a human a right not a privilege. No one should choose the health of a loved one against bankruptcy.
For those vested in the status quo that would say look at the European economy to see the pitfalls of social democracy, the response must be that we are not Europe. We are better positioned, having learned from some of Europe's challenges, but still have much knowledge to gain from the successes of Europe and other social democratic states. We must take note that the best-educated population in a developed country resides not in the United States, but in Canada. The greatest life expectancy cannot be found in the United States, but instead in France, Sweden, Norway, and Spain. The strongest economy in the developed world is Australia, not the United States. As far as quality of life Norway, Australia, and Sweden are markedly ahead of the United States.
There will be those who be averse to the propositions presented and will contend that we as a nation will not or do not want this kind of change. These are fear mongers. Let the decision rest with the people—the collective whole and not elitist sects. Let the people be presented with the facts. Let the duly elected representatives of the people not only hear, but listen and then accordingly act. If the United States is anything it is adaptable. The founding fathers realized this and gave the people the ability to make adjustments to the law of land based on a super preponderance of the people. Throughout our history this republic has responded when necessity dictated no matter how contentious. We need only to look at the issues such of slavery, monopolies, women's suffrage, collective bargaining, civil rights, equal employment, gay rights, and a myriad of others. Oh no, if there is one thing our citizenry will do once presented with the facts is become engaged to make positive social change.
Finally, and returning to the founding fathers, there will also be those who contend a social democracy is not what was envisioned when this great republic was birthed. To those critics I say, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union...".
As the rerun airs the time has come for deliberate reflection and discourse. Let this brief communication serve in some small way as a catalyst for moving those of the apathetic public to their feet and a state of active engagement. We must now take heed to what the voices of our better selves are whispering—no screaming—into our ears.
Gregory G. Jackson is the founder of PPA International, providing public policy consulting services to government and non-profit organizations seeking to make positive social change. Jackson has served as a municipal commissioner and has held chief executive positions in both the government and non-profit sectors. He and currently holds two academic appointments lecturing in public policy and government administration and is the sitting President of the Greater Chicago Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. He holds a BA in Political Science, a MPA with a concentration in local government management, and is completing his PhD in Public Policy and Administration. Jackson is currently writing a series of essays on political reform and social justice titled The Time Is Now, anticipated to be published in early 2013.