“Going Dutch” Revisited

Has America’s myth of individualism and white resentment–based concept of “socialism” lessened our chances to pursue happiness as individuals and, as a nation, to compete in the world?

Recently, the New York Times ran a terrific video piece showing how people around the globe respond when confronted with details of the U.S. healthcare system. The reactions — from citizens of Canada, Germany, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Taiwan, Singapore, and the United Kingdom — to how we manage health care run from derisive laughter, to horrified gasps, to outraged anger. Movingly, there are moments when a couple of them — notably Olga, in Germany — are reduced to speechlessness by examples of how the U.S. health system operates. (And it is great that they decided to leave in those clips, which speak louder than words.) If you haven’t seen it, by all means stop reading this right now and watch it.

And the story is worse than how we provide — or, rather, deny — health care, because as we all know, by simply just looking around, we in the United States are also bad at keeping up our infrastructure. Like, we-can-see-no-future bad.

A bit more than a decade ago, in 2009, a wonderful essay on the topic of taxes and culture by Russell Shorto, entitled “Going Dutch,” was published in The New York Times Magazine. In it, he wrote of his new life as a U.S. citizen living and working in Amsterdam and mentally adjusting to what appeared to be a much higher tax rate in the Netherlands. He decided to write about his own reaction to this as an American and what the Dutch received in return for their taxes versus what citizens received in his home country.

In the essay, Shorto describes himself politically as center-left, but he is surprised to find himself, after moving to Amsterdam, harboring a degree of conservative resentment when confronted with a 52% tax rate.

Over time he finds himself being surprised by mysterious deposits from the government into his bank account — for his children’s school books, for an annual family vacation, for other exigencies of modern life.

When he considers all forms of taxation in the United States and adds them up — our federal and state and Social Security and payroll taxes and retirement savings — it amounts to about the same percentage of income paid by citizens in the Netherlands. But what they receive in return — in terms of a social safety net (including home care for new mothers, early childhood education, and housing assistance) and in terms of infrastructure — well, there is hardly a comparison to be made. It is far, far better than what we see in this country:

American perceptions of European-style social welfare are seriously skewed. The system in which I have embedded myself has its faults, some of them lampoonable. But does the cartoon image of it — encapsulated in the dread slur “socialism,” which is being lobbed in American political circles like a bomb — match reality? Is there, maybe, a significant upside that is worth exploring?

Much of what Shorto wrote about, like the housing assistance, was being managed not solely by government but in public-private partnerships that pay for themselves but that do not take undue profit. If you watched the Times’ video, you heard how other developed countries manage health care and pharmaceutical prices in this way.

Looking at my own paycheck, I see that I am routing just over 50% elsewhere — to taxes, savings, retirement, and health insurance. About 25% goes to the so-called statutory deductions — federal, state, and social security taxes. Another 5% goes to health insurance — a lower cost medical selection (one with a high deductible), dental, and vision. At this point, late in my career, I am saving 20% of my pay for retirement, including a health savings account, and worrying over the total. It’s often the first thing I look at in the morning, while my Outlook is considering whether to open or not.

About that lower cost medical selection with the high deductible: like many others, I find that I will put up with much to avoid seeking health care, which, of course, is not a good situation.

Still, I consider myself lucky — to be well employed, working from home, and able to save as much of my pay as I do for our future. According to various surveys, more than half of the employed U.S. population lives paycheck to paycheck, and the savings for retirement is woefully small. Many Americans with good incomes apparently also live with little emergency reserves and paltry savings for retirement because they overspend on all the things we are relentlessly told we need — the big house, the expensive cars, and the other markers of “success” (inexplicably, golf carts seem big now) — so that even they will likely face challenging times when they retire.

Both these scenarios — the poor and working class that cannot save for the future and an upper middle class that should be saving but is not — have major political ramifications. For both groups, there are expectations, fears, and resentments that can be easily exploited by unprincipled politicians who are quite happy to endlessly riff on one theme: If things aren’t working out for you, others are to blame.

Walking through Dam Square in Amsterdam, and noting that it literally means a dam (of the Amstel River), Shorto points out that the Dutch had a strong cultural reason to favor a collectivist approach, even while they were busy creating the modern capitalist state — their constant battle to keep back an ever-encroaching sea:

The Dam is therefore a reminder not only of the country’s past but also of its ceaseless battle with water. And that battle turns out to be the key to understanding the Netherlands’ blend of free market and social welfare. The Low Countries never developed a fully feudal system of aristocratic landowners and serfs. Rather, sailors, merchants and farmers bought shares in trading ships and in cooperatives to protect the land from the sea, a development that led to the creation of one of the world’s first stock markets and helped fuel the Dutch golden age. Today the country remains among the most free-market-oriented in Europe.

Yes, the United States is a very large republic — the Netherlands is about a quarter of the size of Missouri. And we can’t even agree on much in Missouri, where we have the urban-rural divide seen all over the country. The United States being about 237 times the size of the Netherlands, our cultural traditions are indeed literally all over the map. We had the brutal “tradition” of slavery (which, it should be noted, the Dutch profited from), but we also have had a tradition of collectivist actions in working to knit together the country in times of emergencies.

I have not lived in The Netherlands, though I have travelled there a number of times because I work for a company headquartered in Amsterdam. I have come to admire the way the Dutch go about their business in a no-nonsense, good-humored manner. Sure, some may on occasion wear red jeans, but they are otherwise a wise and logical people. They highly value a work-life balance and make it a priority. They also invest in their future, in terms not only of physical infrastructure but also people, especially when it comes to educating children and young people. People in the Netherlands are not forced to declare bankruptcy due to medical bills.

I know a couple Americans who moved to Amsterdam years ago to take jobs at the home office, and it’s notable that neither has returned. One, a woman facing a serious health issue, told me she made the move to protect herself from likely going broke over health costs that insurance would not pay.

How many Millennials cannot get their lives started properly because of college debt? My wife and I started 529 plans for our daughters’ college educations very early because not leaving them with college debt was a priority for us, and we had jobs that enabled us to save. But it also means that we were not able to save that money along the way for our retirement. We drove older cars, and our house maintenance suffered. (For a couple decades, when I gave people directions to our place, I would tell them to look for the house with the porch needing major repairs. They had no trouble finding us.)

Speaking of healthcare and retirement, one wonders why U.S. corporations put up with managing 401K and health care insurance benefits. Shouldn’t they be lobbying the government to take these financial drains off their plates so they can operate on an even playing field with corporations in more — let’s just say it — civilized countries that do not have to deal with these benefits?

The use of that word, benefits, is key to understanding the U.S. approach to helping provide for the public good, as if health care is an extra, a little bonus, for those who labor for a large company and have been lucky enough (so far) to not see their job vanish. Have we really evolved much from the days of plantation owners or, say, the coal mine with the company store?

The current difficulties that restaurants and bars are having in attracting enough workers to return after being laid off during pandemic shutdowns appears more a result of workers looking elsewhere in order to earn a living wage than sitting at home because of their supplemental unemployment pay due to the pandemic. Still, governors in more than 20 states determined to stop that relief in order to force workers back to work.

In the Times’ video, Pontus, from Sweden, says, “When you lose your job, that’s when society should help you.” But is it smart to return to a job that never paid you a living wage? If given a little breathing room any enterprising person working for low wages would look elsewhere. And it appears that many have.

One of the arguments for universal health care is to give all workers another kind of breathing room, the security to leave a job for another, to perhaps embark on a whole new enterprise without also losing medical coverage.

One political party in American simply does not want workers to have that breathing room.

And our system not only fails to provide a livable wage for workers, it does not promote the idea that having children is possible, or even welcomed. And the way we treat our elders is horrific. My wife and I have both felt the guilt and deep anxiety of seeing our mothers enter nursing care centers where the care seemed to be stretched very thin by understaffing. Cradle to grave, in the United States you are largely living on your own wits, and heaven help you if you run into any bad luck. (I’d call our system Dickensian, but the trolls on the right would jeer and say I’m elitist.)

There are a number of lenses one can gaze through to try to understand what is happening in this country. But along with the class and labor lenses, the lens of race — the subjugation and eradication of native Americans and the institution of slavery being the “original sins” of America — provides a clear view, one that connects deeply to the struggles of all workers.

In Heather McGhee’s latest book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, her central image of the zero-sum game played by whites in this country is that of public swimming pools shuttered during the civil rights era. Communities all over the country shut these pools down (even filled them in) rather than allow them to be integrated.

McGhee asserts that we cannot “have nice things” — universal health care, a better infrastructure — in this country because that would mean those investments in our future would be shared by people of color. As a result, we all lose out and the country falls further and further behind.

American historian Heather Cox Richardson, in her “Letters from an American” posts, has lately written frequently about the history of “movement conservatives” who did not find traction for their ideas of turning back the public works and safety net advances of the New Deal until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision gave them a ready mechanism to insinuate their thoughts on race into the minds of the white public:

The ideological faction that is currently in control of the Republican Party grew out of opposition to the active government both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. But since Americans actually liked business regulation, a social safety net, and infrastructure projects, those Movement Conservatives who wanted to take the government back to the 1920s got little traction until 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision enabled them to harness racism to their cause. With federal government efforts to end segregation in the public schools, businessmen who hated government regulation warned voters that their tax dollars were being used to give Black Americans extra benefits. It was socialism, they said, and it would encourage Black people to step out of their place.

Fighting the culture wars, largely against providing equal rights to various members of society — including, notably, an inconsequential group known as women — and promulgating the former president’s Big Lie about the 2020 election by attacking voting rights is all that seems to remain for Republicans. That, and their relentless claims of white victimhood. There was no official platform drawn up for the last election, but white resentment and victimhood served as the unwritten policies. Even unwritten, I imagine there were a few misspellings.

As many have pointed out, the face of the Republican party now could very well be the McCloskeys, the infamous St. Louis couple who ran to the front yard of their mansion brandishing guns at protestors who happened to be passing by, on their way to the mayor’s house. Heck, they were invited to the 2020 GOP Convention to be the faces of the aggrieved party, and now Mark McCloskey (he of the AR-15 and pink IZOD polo) is taking that notoriety and running for the U.S. senate claiming he was acting to save his home from destruction and his family from murder. It would all be laughable if it weren’t in keeping with the GOP’s game plan of constantly stoking fear and anger, subverting facts by creating an alternate reality, and undermining trust in the government by turning its back on all Democratic norms.

The near-pitiless form of capitalism practiced in this country has been exposed throughout our brief history, by journalists, photographers, essayists, and authors — from Jacob Riis’ exposure of slum life in nineteenth century New York City, to Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons, to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, to McGhee’s The Sum of Us.

With Republicans working diligently to further codify minority rule rather than acting in good faith to ensure a future for the country by improving access to health care, revamping infrastructure, and addressing climate change, it’s easy to see the United States, as one commenter to the Times’ piece put it, as “the most developed third-world country.”

Umair Haque, whom I follow on Medium, writes that we should have Europeanized the world, to educate children and stave off despair (and all that follows), but what we did instead was Americanize the world:

We should have Europeanized the world — given everyone, and I mean everyone, basics as inviolable human rights, from vaccines to an education to water to food. We would all have been better off, because we would have prevented the crises which confront us now — and we would have had working systems and institutions.

As to the pursuit of happiness — which the founders enshrined in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and which spoke to them not about some vague notion of happiness, as we might think of it, but about the hard work of individuals to live virtuously as well as the fundamental role of government to promote the well-being of the public — it’s worth noting that the United States dwells at the bottom of happiness indexes among wealthy countries. For the past 20 years the United States has been languishing around number 18 on the World Happiness Index rankings, which measures how people feel about conditions in their country. The United Nation’s most recent 2020 Human Development Index, which measures health, education, and income, has the United States 17th, having moved down three spots.

All told, what is truly impressive is how well we have been sold a bill of goods on our so-called socialism. What we create and maintain collectively — from public libraries to roads, highways, and bridges, to police and fire departments to public schools — represents the will of the people to continue our journey as a nation. And given that the virtuous sacrifice of individual time and wealth to the public good is a large part of what the founders meant by “the pursuit of happiness,” it ought to be viewed as a true sign of patriotism to support those collective efforts.

If we want to make America great again — and stave off the authoritarian impulse created by inequities, disinformation, and bigotry— we might begin by teaching civics and living those ideals, by recognizing our pursuit of happiness lies in that pursuit of virtue and by acknowledging that we cannot hope to compete in a global economy by continuing to utilize our great-grandparents’ infrastructure.

Shorto had earlier written a masterful book, The Island at the Center of the World, detailing the history of the Dutch founding of Manhattan and their larger colony in the new world. He recounted the history — only recently being understood — of New Amsterdam (renamed New York when the British took over).

But as Shorto points out, there is much to learn about the culture the Dutch left us in the United States, one of cooperation and toleration, of the multiculturalism which was always our greatest strength and made us who we are, including being — like the Dutch still are today with their so-called welfare state — highly successful capitalists.

[First published on Medium.]