Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Can the Empire Strike Back?

We live in extraordinary times. Just a few months back few could imagine that the Capitalist Heaven majority of us were so proud of would no longer be. The sky-high oil prices in the summer were a bad omen. Prices of everything went up as a result and the U.S. dollar, to which crude oil prices are pegged, kept on losing its value on a daily basis. Then Wall Street collapsed with almost no advance warning and people saw the value of their investments plummet. Millions have lost their homes and/or jobs, and with the latter, health insurances. Illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are packing their bags and heading home. The land of gold has become the country of fool's gold. The bailout money meant to help ordinary people has vanished and nobody seems to have benefited from it, other than big banks and other financial institutions. Sure, the fuel prices are down to a third from less than six month ago and the greenback has increased its value, compared to the euro and sterling. But this also means that people don't feel the same urge to buy their new hybrid or any other fuel-efficient car. There used to be a waiting list for the Prius; now they are filling the free space around harbors such as Long Beach which have been turned into parking lots for unsold vehicles. Not that many could find financing at present for such major purchases.

It is at times like today when people realize what a nonexistent safety net Americans have. We fear the word "socialism" above all, yet we are envious of the way people are taken care of in most other Western democracies. Yes, those countries are also suffering in the global crisis, but cutting back in what amounts to basic human rights to them, such as free or almost free education and healthcare, is not an option. It is often argued that we cannot afford to pay for universal health insurance. That is probably true, although the money spent on unnecessary and insane wars on the other side of the globe or in these bailouts would easily cover that. The United States spends more per capita on health care than any other country, yet we have precious little to show for it. How do they manage in places like Scandinavia? Simple: there is no health insurance. A medical expense occurs only when a person gets sick and the government pays for the hospitals and health centers directly. A healthy individual is not an expense, except when he occasionally visits the clinic for preventive care. When you eliminate the greedy insurance companies, which are there to fatten the pockets of their stockholders, but not to serve, you save a lot of money. A hospital there is not expected to make a profit. Even the private doctors outside of the public system are reasonable as it is almost impossible to file successful malpractice lawsuits or the rare awards are minimal. Granted, no system is ideal, but even if one has to wait for elective surgery at times, everyone is taken care of. Sick people don't die on stretchers as is increasingly common in American emergency rooms. Infant mortality rate in my native Finland is half of our country.

Young people back home complain that they are not paid enough for studying in a university or other institution of higher education. What a strange concept: instead of bankrupting one's parents or having to pay back student loans for decades, people are actually paid to go to school. Same is true when raising a family. Mothers get a monthly tax-free payment per each child which goes up with more children. Unemployment, never a pleasant situation, is tolerable as benefits are decent and don't expire in a few months like here. The system is actively looking for a new job for you. People can actually retire and they don't have to worry about their final years. Of course, the downside of this cradle-to-grave system is that people don't feel the urge to save. In essence they already do that by paying high taxes.

Americans often like to think of their country being built on Christian principles and values. Many would like to bring mandatory prayer back to our schools and make teaching evolution optional, even illegal, along with other sciences. Everyone can see that the Earth is flat and the sun and the starts circulate it, right? Many want to accept every word of the Bible as literal truth, no questions asked. In this context it baffles me how the teachings of Jesus have been modified to serve capitalism. Wasn't Christ really very much of a socialist, or a religious communist, who believed in taking care of the less fortunate, the poor and sick, the outcasts? Europeans may have forgotten to attend church services but at least they believe in the principles the New Testament teaches.

The majority of Americans clearly want to see a change taking place here as otherwise they wouldn't have voted for Mr. Obama last month. I don't envy him: the empire he's inheriting is in terrible shape. He'll either fail to get us back on our feet or he'll succeed; in either case I'm sure he will have tried his best. Unlike most other politicians, he doesn't seem to have skeletons in his closet. The forces opposing him must have turned over every stone looking for dirt. Accusations of being a Muslim (would that be a crime?), having a middle name Hussein or "flirting with terrorists" didn't have the effect on voters the slimy opposition campaign had hoped for. For the first time in decades we'll have an honest person in the Oval Office with our country's best interests in mind. But an easy job he won't have. At least he seems to have surrounded himself with smart individuals. Some fear that his choices for cabinet posts include people with too big egos; perhaps he'll be able to control most of them if not all. In any case, USA is no longer a swear word across the globe. With Mr. Obama the world sees hope for peace again.

Who knows, like the phoenix bird from its red egg, this empire may rise again. One thing is for sure: life here isn't going to be the same as it was before. In order to survive we must be prepared for major changes.

Firebird photo Ilkka Talvi