Posts Tagged ‘budgets’

State of the Union: US: Sweden

February 15, 2013

imagesSo the President gets up there and unveils a host of big new government programs. Then he says they won’t add a dime to the deficit. That would be true only if:

a) They don’t pass Congress, or
b) Taxes are raised, or
c) Other programs are cut

As to (c), of course the President has proposed no such cuts. In fact, after years of talking about a balance of tax hikes and spending cuts, and indeed campaigning on that issue, Obama in the recent fiscal cliff deal got taxes raised without any spending cuts at all.

Cartoon by Eric Allie,

Cartoon by Eric Allie,

This he actually thought was a glorious triumph; liberals are cock-a-hoop that they’ve really stuck it to Republicans.

The Pre-K education proposal epitomizes how they think. Pre-K is actually desperately needed to help disadvantaged kids who are otherwise being done down by crappy schools. But does Obama’s proposal target those kids? No. It’s “universal.” Which means that just like Medicare and farm subsidies and so many other government programs, it will mainly give yet more welfare to the affluent, with the disadvantaged getting only a lesser share of the benefits.

This is not the time to be adding a big new “universal” federal program.

Whatever benefit it may buy will be more than wiped out when the shit hits the fan and our economy sinks under the weight of unsustainable debt. That’s true of all Obama’s economic initiatives. They will all come to nothing and worse if we don’t tackle the one big monster looming on the horizon, our debt. Eyes closed to this, Obama is taking us down the road to ruin.

images-3It doesn’t have to be this way. The Economist recently ran an illuminating survey of the Nordic countries. Remember Sweden, the poster boy for a tax-and-spend “social welfare” state, of cradle-to-grave government cosseting, soaking up the lion’s share of GDP? Well, it’s not your father’s Sweden anymore. That model, the Swedes and other Nordics realized, was doomed, so they reformed; in The Economist’s words, they “put an end to the region’s magical thinking about welfare.”

So they enacted sweeping pension and benefit reforms and put their budgets in balance; Sweden reduced national debt from 84% of GDP in 1996 to 49% in 2011; government’s share of GDP fell by a whopping 18 percentage points. The Nordic countries have also become much more enthusiastic toward the free market and entrepreneurialism, moving their economies away from statism. They embrace free trade and resist the siren song of protectionism. The Swedes now even let private companies compete with government bodies to provide services; a majority of new kindergartens and health clinics are being built by businesses, and citizens can shop around.

images-5This includes school choice; Sweden is now the world’s leading adopter of vouchers. Almost half its schoolkids are in non-public classrooms. And the most comprehensive study of the results shows great performance improvement – especially in the public schools, which competition has forced to raise their game. (Milton Friedman, father of the voucher concept, said the point was not that privately-run schools would be better; rather, all types of schools would be better if they must compete.)

Finland too is a hotbed of educational success. Interestingly, Finland spends proportionately less on schools than America, and teacher pay is relatively low. Yet Finland attracts high quality teachers by giving them something more valuable than money: respect, and thus a high degree of autonomy and responsibility for what they do in class.

So, does all this reform throw granny over the cliff, as in liberal nightmares? No. As I keep saying, rich countries have plenty of money to take care of the needy; it’s welfare for the rich that’s bankrupting us. Nordic budgets have not been balanced on the backs of the disadvantaged. What they have done is to create the conditions for everyone to flourish. And, by all accounts, their populations are quite happy with the change, facing the future with a positive attitude.

images-4Why can’t America get its act together like that? Yes, I know all about our frozen politics and the influence of special interests (like the teachers’ unions). But Sweden and Finland were not utopian paradises free of such societal baggage. Those fat and happy with their old paternalistic policies were equally wedded to them. But their special pleading was overcome. It takes leadership and grit. I continue to believe Americans would support sensible reforms like the Nordics, if only some real leadership were shown.

I guess we’ll have to await another president. Let’s hope it won’t be too late.