August 24, 2010

Strife is Justice

Last February after I attended the ARCO art fair in Madrid, I went on to visit friends in various places, one of them was in Copenhagen. I marveled at the social democratic system, so wonderful was the society there. I wondered about my country, about how we could come up so short in terms of government services since our tax rates are very close to those in the EU. Since then, I have come to realize that while the USA is emulating the European model, Europe is moving ever so slightly to the right in terms of restraining government spending, the precipice of bankruptcy being the prime motivating factor. Kind of like California and Ohio and other states back home. Recently, I heard that Germany is hiring again and that their economy is going strong thanks perhaps to Angela Merkel.

In light of this, is this interesting article from the New York Times, Denmark Starts to Trim Its Admired Safety Net:

For years, Denmark was held out as a model to countries with high unemployment and as a progressive touchstone to liberals in the United States. The Danes, despite their lavish social welfare state, managed to keep joblessness remarkably low.

But now Denmark, which allows employers to hire and fire at will while relying on an elaborate system of training, subsidies for those between jobs and aggressive measures to press the unemployed into available openings, is facing its own strains. As a result, it is beginning to tighten up.

Struggling to keep its budget under control after the financial crisis, the government in June cut into its benefits system, the world?s most generous, by limiting unemployment payments to two years instead of four. Having found that recipients either get work right away or take any job as their checks run out, officials are also redoubling longstanding efforts to move Danes more quickly out of the safety net....

...Such European countries could profit, many economists say, from adopting the more dynamic parts of Denmark?s ?flexicurity? system. But now that the global recession has exposed chinks in its armor, Denmark?s efforts to find a new balance between job market flexibility and security for workers are setting off alarm bells in the country.

?We have a famous flexicurity model, but now it?s all flex and no security,? complained Kim Simonsen, chairman of HK, one of Denmark?s largest trade unions.

To be sure, Denmark is not abandoning the welfare state. Government spending accounts for about half of gross domestic product, and few Danes complain about a top income tax rate of 50 percent that generously finances unemployment, pensions, health care and other accoutrements that, studies claim, make Danes the happiest people on earth.

Hardly anyone in Denmark, a small, tranquil country of 5.5 million people, falls through the cracks. The constitution even guarantees Danes the right to work and to receive public assistance if they stumble. But sustaining a benevolent nanny state is proving to be challenging even for the notably generous Danes.

Politically, I am square in the center. I think that political purism on either side left or right is not only foolish and dangerous but also unimaginative. The challenge is not an inert tandem grasp of each side but to find or fashion a dynamic synthesis of the two, to make the tensed bow of Heraclitus. So blame the temerity of an artist (an occupational hazard) that I would come up with a meme for a political campaign that could be used by either side Democrat or Republican: "More for Less", better government services for less tax money. The Democrats could undercut the Republicans by stealing the goal of making a smaller government, and the Republicans could steal the thunder of the Democrats by unlocking the secret of government efficiency and banishing the old but still yet incriminating chestnut "good enough for government work" to the dustbin of history. Therefore I was happily surprised to find this snip later on in the article mentioned above:

?It?s no surprise the government is saying that programs that are highly expensive and give a Rolls-Royce treatment to citizens have to be trimmed,? said Iain Begg, a professor at the London School of Economics. ?So the search will now be on for labor market policies that deliver more people in work with less money, which has an inevitable air of the holy grail about it.?

A Holy Grail? It better not be. It's not utopian because doing more with less is something every worker and business does and has to do every day of their-our lives. There's no reason that any government anywhere in the world has to live a life that is different from the citizens they serve... unless it is the citizenry that serves the government. And we don't want that, do we?

Do we?

Posted by Dennis at August 24, 2010 4:33 AM

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