It’s true that Biden is proposing a considerable amount of new spending that could reignite inflation: He wants $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and $1.8 trillion for child care, family leave and education. That’s on top of the $1.9 trillion in stimulus spending that was already passed. But those investments won’t turn us into North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela or the Soviet Union — all countries with government ownership of industry. They will simply bring us a little closer to the standard set by other wealthy industrialized democracies — our international peer group.
Many conservatives, of course, seem to think that, as an “exceptional” nation, we have nothing to learn from any other country. But that is hubris speaking. The coronavirus pandemic should have shattered illusions about U.S. omnipotence that not even our rapid vaccination campaign can undo. While other nations such as Brazil and India have much larger outbreaks today, the United States still has more verified covid-19 deaths (more than 576,000) than any other country. The United States remains a leader in some important areas, including our high-tech industry, our financial industry, our universities and our armed forces. But by most indexes we are an embarrassing international laggard.
The Commonwealth Fund notes that the United States spends nearly twice as much on health care as a percentage of gross domestic product than do other wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Yet, compared with our peers, we have lower life expectancy, higher suicide rates, higher levels of obesity, higher rates of chronic diseases and higher rates of avoidable deaths. It’s no coincidence that the United States, alone among advanced industrialized countries, does not have universal health care. The United States is also alone among OECD nations in not having universal paid family leave.
The Economic Policy Institute notes that income inequality in the United States has been worsening for years: “From 1978 to 2018, CEO compensation grew by 1,007.5%. … In contrast, wages for the typical worker grew by just 11.9%.” Our level of income inequality is now closer to that of developing countries in Africa and Latin American than to our European allies.
In other respects we are simply mediocre. The OECD reports that the minimum wage in the United States is the 15th highest in the world — well behind countries such as Germany and South Korea. The World Economic Forum rates U.S. infrastructure 13th in the world (Singapore is No. 1). The OECD found in 2018 that in an international test of 15-year-olds, the U.S. ranked 11th out of 79 countries in science and 30th in math.
We do lead in some areas. The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate (higher than in Turkmenistan and Cuba!), the world’s highest rate of civilian gun ownership and the highest rate of violent gun deaths among other advanced industrialized democracies (more than eight times higher than Canada’s).
While we spend more on prisons than other countries, we spend less on social services. The U.S. government’s share of GDP (37.8 percent) is considerably lower than in most other OECD countries (in France it’s 55.6 percent). Yet the United States is hardly a free-market paradise: The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranks the United States No. 20, far behind countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Denmark that have more robust welfare states.
Yes, it’s possible to combine a vibrant free market with generous social welfare spending. In fact, that’s the right formula for a more satisfied and stable society. In the OECD quality-of-life rankings — which include everything from housing to work-life balance — the United States ranks an unimpressive 10th. The leaders are Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada and Denmark — again, all emphatically capitalist countries whose governments spend a higher share of GDP than we do.
Biden’s plans, even if fully implemented, won’t cause the United States to leap to the front of the pack in quality-of-life rankings. He doesn’t have the support in Congress to address our rampant gun crime with tougher licensing for handguns and a ban on assault rifles (as occurred in Australia and New Zealand). He is not even trying to institute universal medical care — something that every other wealthy country already has — because to do so would invite the same Republican protests against “socialized medicine” that greeted the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
At most, with proposals such as federally subsidized child care, elder care, family leave and pre-K education — financed with modest tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals — Biden is merely moving us a bit closer to the kinds of government services that other wealthy, industrialized democracies already take for granted. We will remain on the smaller-government, lower-tax end of the spectrum, but we will have a slightly stronger social safety net than we had before. That’s far from radical. It’s simply sensible.