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Letters from Downunder

Who Cares?

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

How horrible it is to have so many people killed!
- and what a blessing that one cares for none of them.
Jane Austin, letter, 1811

(10/2013) Back around 1880 Otto von Bismark, Reich chancellor of Germany, devised the principles of a state insurance scheme. Laws relating to accident and health insurance, provisions for invalids and old age were passed, and by the end of the century some ten percent of the population were enjoying the benefits. Today, that figure is ninety percent.

As well, various other forms of social security have been put in place, including insurance for long-term care, the financial consequences of unemployment, and other similar policies. Schooling has always been free, if not entirely uniform in standards as each area is responsible for its own planning, and some 90% of parents have their children enrolled in one of them many courses that are available. Universities operate on very reduced fees, and a high percentage of graduating students attend.

This is just one of the many differences between this European success story and your country - and therefore ours - and there are many more. I was truly amazed when visiting Berlin mid-August at the vast gulf that exists between them and us, particularly in safety, the enormous number of small family enterprises, the lack of tension on the streets, and particularly the lack of aggression from everyone. Sure, we were tourists, but no one tried to accost us, verbal us or make us feel anxious. There were no people sleeping on the streets, not even a drunk , so far as we could tell, and to cap it all it is the least expensive capital city in Europe, certainly not quite half the cost of living in Melbourne.

No armed police visible, no arms of any kind allowed in the general population, and although the behaviour on the streets was often rowdy, we saw no fights, no obvious druggies, just the latest art form - tattoos adorning more skin than we had ever seen before, in a kind of modern art pop.

It was so different, not exciting in the way we think excitement needs to be, but full of treasures - like the Alt Deutch Museum - the art, the food, the transport, the shopping, and the overall efficiency - and all done to a plan of social betterment and equality. And with a high percentage of the workforce engaged in running it. Big government, in other words.

I know you have real concerns about the size of your government, so here's some round figure stats for comparison: Germany has a population of 81 million, of which 4.6 million are civil servants, or 3.7% of the population. You have a population of 317 million, of which 1.8 million are civil servants (excluding postal), or 0.6% of the population. You have 2.3 million personnel in defence, many more than the civil service, which comes out at 7.3 people per thousand. Germany has 330,000 in defence, or 4 per 1000.

And yet Germany is prosperous, with a high output per capita, and with a net government debt of 57% of GDP compared with your 88%. Tell me again why you believe your government is too big? It's really just one part of it that falls into that category isn't it? The Armed forces. Big sticks cost money, using them costs more. Being policeman to the world wins you no real friends and sends you broke. It does inflate the ego, but surely a big national ego is less important than a well-managed population who feel safe - not from outside terrors, but the ever-present risk of terror from their own.

Combatting terror has reduced your civil liberties dramatically. These precious things are still well advanced in Germany, and being safeguarded. The real question is, how did this come about? Well, it comes down to a difference in philosophy. Bismark began by supposing that the state was ultimately responsible for the welfare of its people, The United States began by supposing that welfare was, in general, an individual matter. If a citizen of your country gets into difficulties, they need to get themselves out of them. Theoretically, only rarely and reluctantly will the state do it, and then only if there is good evidence that the need is not a disguise for freeloading. That's the theory, but in practice it seems to be the opposite: little evidence is needed, the handout is made, civil servants can claim how great they are; where that used to be a community endeavour, now it's a government trough. Another example of lack of regulation and responsibility. Community help has been subsumed. German grass roots assistance is everywhere, but well hidden. The money raised publicly is mostly for overseas aid.

America embraced capitalism and saw it become corporate, because freedom to help yourself get up is freedom to make money any legitimate way possible, which leads to the question of control. Because dishonesty flourishes where there is no scrutiny, or where such scrutiny is performed by the business itself, which in practice turns out to be much the same thing, controls were put in place by the government, requiring more personnel , but which fell to the combined pressures of corporate finance, a weak administration who may well have colluded in the act, with the result that stupidity and dishonesty reigned. And still does.

Small government became the mantra, self-regulation the norm, and sufficient hard restrictions impossible. Tax rates have declined for the rich, hawks rule the nest, and the citizens complain. President Obama, seemingly 2% to the left of the conservatives, has struggled to get even minor social improvements passed - and yet the cry is still going up, 'less government, less scrutiny, less ...'

Tax rates in Germany run from zero (up to 7,500 euro) to 45% when earnings reach 250,000. A solidarity surcharge of 5.5% is put on top of this for everyone, including corporations, to help finance the reunification of east and west Berlin. Yet people are by and large prosperous - all this, without a minimum wage! Rents are kept low, corporate intrusion from America is strictly limited, (I saw one Maccas in the whole time - two weeks - that I was there, so the quick food outlets were individually owned, nutritious, wholesome and cheap), and everyone seemed to respect the laws, even though there was no visible presence of police or guards, except at the synagogues.

So who cares? Who takes care? The government or the individual? Is the US government FOR the people, does it care, does it take care? Critics may say that Germany is a socialist hell hole, but it is not, it is in fact a model of modern government in difficult times. Difficult because the tax base is decreasing as the population ages, while that also means greater expenditure on that sector. construction is hot, optimism is high, social action is vibrant, the cities are clean, well cared for, the transport system in the cities is unbelievably good and cheap ($70 per week, we paid, for all public access), with five times more commuters than in America.

Go, go and experience the result of a nation that cares about and for its citizens. Where safety is normal, tolerance expected, littering unthinkable, and even minor infringements are frowned upon. And most people feel free. And then hang your collective heads in shame.

Lindsay, down under in Australia, the next great state of the United States.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker