Monday, April 02, 2007

Superior Politics That You Can See

What can we learn from the Dutch about doing the best by our entire country? One hell of a lot -- including how our social and economic policies reflect in our child well-being and even our height.

Since September when the international figures confirmed it, much has been made in the tabs and on TV about the Netherlands having on average, the world's tallest citizens. That is particularly remarkable in that as late as WWII and the Nazi occupation, the Dutch were the shortest Europeans.

Today, adults there average three or more inches taller than Americans. Accompanying this rapid increase has been dramatically reduced child mortality, a near disappearance of poverty, and one of the world's longest lived citizenry. Politics is huge here and should come as a klaxon to rouse American lawmakers and executive branch members.

To put it bluntly, our political and economic policies are stunting and even killing our children, as well as shortening our average lives. A more egalitarian and socially fairer society raises the general welfare as well as advancing the entire nation.

America's health figures are abysmal. Go to any UN or other compilation and find that our longevity is way down the list of nations and our infant mortality and child poverty totals are way up. Yet, per capital -- that is averaged -- we live in an extremely wealthy country. What can we learn from this?

There is a lot of analysis, including simple examples from the International Herald Tribune. Most conclude nearly identically that factors include:
  • A smattering, but a negligible amount of genes. The fact is that we used to pretend that Asians, Latinos and other "short" people bought our average down. In fact, given good nutrition and access to health care have led to rapid height increases among those groups. The rule is that poor people are small. The combination of wealth and genes should make us the tallest in the world.
  • Affordable health care. From pre-natal, even pre-pregnancy on, the biggest factor in health and height is access to preventative and remedial medical care. As a nation, we seem terrified of nationalizing health care, and certainly there are both good and bad examples of how to do that. Our obscenely inefficient and expensive private system should drive us toward nationalization though. There is a direct correlation between high-quality, tax-paid health care and health, longevity and even height.
  • Economic equality. In this nation of individuals, we hold the idea that if we are smart, lucky and connected enough any one of us can be a king instead of a serf. That's fine for the few wealthiest, who not coincidentally are taller, healthier and longer-lived than average. As with the other healthiest nations, the Netherlands have relative high taxes and a much smaller disparity from the wealthy to the middle-class. Again, poverty is nearly unknown.
There's a wonderful piece touching on related topics in the Financial Times. Unfortunately, you have to subscribe to the online version or get the old salmon sheet delivered to see Mica Panic's op-ed, Child poverty exposes the Anglo-American Model. (You can get a fuller flavor of Dr. Panic's work here and here though.)

Unlike the I've-got-mine-now-bug-off brand of Americans, Dr. Panic likes children as much as he disrespects globalization-mongering neo-liberals. He grieves noting how both the U.K. and U.S. would play Chronos, destroying their babies for the betterment of their wealthiest. They can see what the Dutch and Scandinavians have done that avoids such disgrace.

In his extensive comparisons of social well-being and economic performance, he found "Swedes and Norwegians enjoy the highest level of social well-being, followed closely by people in the Netherlands. The US is well behind on almost every indicator. Germany and France are in the middle, with the UK between them and the US."

He correlates the sickly folk with their countries' economics and politics. Those, like the U.S. and U.K., who favor the free-market economy fail their citizens overall for the benefit of a few. In contrast, the healthiest nations are necessarily those with the highest GDPs per capital. However, "(u)nlike the US and, since 1979, the UK, those countries attach great importance to social cohesion and, therefore, to equality of opportunity."

In short, sharing the wealth helps the entire nation. The American Dream can be for everyone, not just the most rugged or the best born individualists. Social Darwinism fails more than it buoys.

Panic notes that the healthiest nations:
  • Have cooperation in solving national problems, among government, employers and employees.
  • Extract higher taxes than we do, but help all citizens in education, training and health.
  • Retrain their unemployed.
  • Have narrow inequality of income, "and so also poverty, economic insecurity, lack of trust in other people and levels of stress and crime."
Panic asks, "If these achievements are, as neo-liberals believe, a sign of failure, what constitutes success?"

Convincing Americans that such a model is more desirable and workable than our pioneer and free-capitalist competition one is admittedly difficult. On the other hand, we are not a nation of mental deficients. Making it clear what advances us as a nation is a great start. We also have the advantages of seeing where other nations have failed in their health-care and economic policies, and where other have succeeded.

It only took the Dutch two generations to make up for privation and poor planning.

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Mark D. Snyder said...

I've always admired the Dutch way of life. I recenty returned from a trip to Amsterdam - definately a livable place. They've had gay marriage for a long time, universal healthcare, elderly care, bike paths on every street, etc. One of the interesting polcies they have is in regards to housing. If a house is vacant for a certain amount of time, it is open and legal for squatters to take it over. there is a huge young squatter movement that tries to keep lowcost housing available.
The legalized marijuana is a great policy as well - Netherlands has a very low hard drug use rate and they treat addiction as a social health problem not a crime.

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Body Size and Human Longevity