Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why are we so poor?


Americans like to describe themselves in superlatives. According to one of them ours is the “richest country in the world.” That is not literally true, but we are among the countries that are better off.

But at the same time we are chronically short of funds. Our roads and bridges are poorly maintained. Our education system is underfunded. Buildings need better maintenance. Class sizes are growing while teachers continue to be laid off. College and University faculties shrink while the bulk of teaching is done by temporary teachers who are overworked and underpaid. Ours is becoming a MacEd system.

The most obvious explanation of this state of affairs is that our tax rates are significantly lower than those in other developed countries. For every dollar paid in taxes in other developed countries, Americans pay 75 cents. (Obviously, such comparisons are complex and very controversial). While the official tax rates for American corporations are much higher than, say, in Europe, significant numbers of huge multinational corporations, whose profits run into the billions of dollars, actually pay no income tax at all.

But then we run into some perplexing facts. The US outspends other developed countries on education but ranks lower than all of them in educational test results. We spend more but get poorer results. The same in true in health care where we spend enormous sums for no more than mediocre results.

Our constant shortage of funds may be due not only to how we collect money for the government but also on how we spend it.

The controversies about comparative international tax rates are insignificant compared to those about the explanations for our failure to spend education and health care money effectively. It clearly seems that we waste a whole lot of money compared to other countries. Ask any ten people for an explanation of that and you are liable to get at least twelve different answers.

But then there is also the question of what we spend our money on. The two largest items in our national budget are social services--for the poor, the elderly, the sick—and the military. Here we encounter some startling figures. Of the $1750 billion the whole world spends on the military, the US spends 39% or $682 billion. The US has soldiers stationed on all continents with the lowest number in Africa.

Our perpetual shortage of funds has many causes. We do not pay enough taxes. We do not spend our money wisely. We maintain an empire that is more expensive than we can afford.

How can we resolve any of these problems, about how we tax, how we spend, and how we try to control the globe? We cannot agree on the answer; we cannot even agree on how to frame our questions.

The fiscal crisis is just one more symptom of a deep-seated deficiency. The nation has no common values. Our dedication to equality and liberty has become a formulaic ritual barely concealing a wide range of different agendas. Deeply divided, we are unable to form effective policies. Reforms like the Affordable Care Act are immensely complex schemes cobbled together to please groups with inconsistent agendas. Private insurance companies, out for maximum profit, are yoked together with public spirited advocates for the sick and the poor to form a byzantine system that is bound to be inefficient.

But such Rube Goldberg contraptions are needed in a country that has lost the ability to have a reasonable national conversation on anything. We all look first to what is best for  us. No one cares about the common good—about what might be good for all--and so we cannot agree on anything.

The financial poverty of the country is a fitting symbol for its loss of public spirit. We are impoverished above all when it comes to caring for our children, the sick, the elderly and the poor. We fail in our efforts to make a good life for ourselves because we have lost sight of the fact that anyone of us can only be well off, if all are.