Friday, February 6, 2009


With all of the incredible news items over the past year it would have been easy to overlook what I believe to be one of the most significant stories not just of this year but perhaps of the young century. Is it about Iraq or nuclear terrorism? No. It concerns the making of automobiles. The 29 November business section of the New York Times relates that for the first time the province of Ontario "is on course to pass Michigan this year as the biggest auto-producing entity in North America." This is shocking when one considers the grand and glorious legacy of Henry Ford and the American Automobile industry.

Is this second place finish due to some secret industrial technique used by our neighbors to the north or perhaps onerous union demands? No. The reason is a simple one, health care. In Canada, workers get their coverage from the government, in the good old USA, Ford and Chrysler and General Motors have to add $1,400 to the cost of a vehicle to pay for their worker’s health care, (more than they spend on steel).
The result is that due to the lack of national health care U.S made cars are more expensive to produce that those cranked out in Canadian factories.

Most conservatives believe that government “give away” programs are an anathema and a hindrance to production and profits, but the fact is that by sharing the cost of health care, Canadians have actually improved the industrial and economic output of their country. The above example illustrates quite well why those who see the tenets of the New Deal and the Great Society as old hat are wrong. It is true that in the current political environment the “government is the problem” crowd appears to be at the top of their game. However, they should not be so foolish as to think that Americans have abandoned the notion that government can, under the right leadership and circumstances, make life better for all of us. George W. Bush himself alluded to this issue in his recent inaugural address “In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G.I. Bill of Rights”

I don’t know what history book Mr. Bush’s speechwriters were reading but the three examples he gave as evidence of “economic independence” are anything but. In fact, all of them are classic examples of old fashion dyed in the wool, “give away” programs. But just try to think of what our nation would look like without them. The Homestead Act “gave away” land for an $18.00 filing fee, the G.I. Bill “gave away” college educations and housing to anyone who served in WWII, and the Social Security Act provided peace of mind to millions of seniors. Based on these “giveaway programs” one would think that those who received these practically free benefits would have stopped working long ago and degenerated into a bunch of lazy malingerers.

History shows that exactly the opposite happened. Buoyed by the advantages provided to them, millions of people took advantage of the aforementioned to build a nation and society that is envied by the world. This is not to say that unbridled socialism is the answer, only a fool would disagree with Michael Mandelbaum’s assertion that our nation and perhaps the world’s future will depend on our ability to bring about “peace, democracy and free markets.” But as the Ontario example illustrates, free markets work best when workers have a strong sense of security and the knowledge that a strong social safety net is in place.

Like the President, Red State America is enamored of a so called "ownership society" based on both religion and morality. Yet in the development of their polices they often ignore the words of John the Baptist who made it clear in the gospel of Luke that “he who has two tunics should share with he who has none and let him who has food do likewise.

Conversely it is true that the world does not owe anyone a living. We as a nation have a right to expect that individuals will take responsibility for themselves on some level. But we also need to remember that not everyone can be a doctor or lawyer or world-class entrepreneur. The fact is that in the year 2005 there are millions of Americans who work hard every day in what are now referred to as " service industries." These individuals play by the rules. They show up at work, go to church and obey the law. Yet, every day more and more of them find it impossible to get health care, obtain a college education for their children and a decent life for themselves in retirement. We may not owe anyone a living, but we should endeavor to give every citizen in our nation at least a chance to succeed.

America has been able to avoid the wars and conflicts of other nations due largely to the fact that we have always had a burgeoning middle class. We cannot be a nation of millionaires at one end and Wal-Mart greeters at the other. The "Ownership society Mr. Bush speaks so highly of will not succeed if only certain segments of society have the ability to own those things worth having.

This is why I believe that the death of liberalism, like that of Mark Twain's has been greatly exaggerated. Throughout time America has found a middle ground that allows all strata of our society to grow and thrive. I think it might be time for the ship of state to sail back in that direction. Right now it is tacking a little bit to far to the starboard side and not only people, but profits as well, are suffering for it.

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