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The Social Contract 

And no, it's not "socialist" contract

"Socialist" and "socialism" are the new demonizing epithets favored by conservatives, having replaced "liberal" as the insult du jour. To be "socialist" is to be un-American, or subversive to American "values." There's all the difference in the world between the words "social" and "socialist." I'm the proud product of a European social democracy that was founded on capitalism but advances social agendas as equal partners. In Britain, university education was free right through graduate school (there is now a small fee), health care is free from cradle to grave, and families are nurtured through paid maternity leave and other benefits. This charter of basic human rights — a social contract — has been forged by all European governments, on the left and the right. The ideals that uninformed Americans dismiss as "socialism" are bedrock European principles of social justice, decency and humanity.

In today's world of soundbites and invective, the very act of questioning American policies has been redefined as, if not "socialistic," then at least "unpatriotic." America is in the grip of doctrinaire conservatives who think they know all the answers, and it's unpopular to seek ideas for better ways to live and govern in the USA.

I'm used to having the erroneous "socialist" label applied to me when I have the temerity to point out that — despite the many good things about this country — America sometimes makes mistakes. There are great gaps in US policies on health care and the environment, just to name two of the most obvious topics, and, yes, America can learn from other nations.

To some folks who email me, any such critique and quest for improvement is borderline treason, evidence of "hating America." Those correspondents who combine threats of violence with obscene suggestions urge me to leave the USA and take my "socialist" ideas with me.

Nowhere is debate in America more paralyzed by uninformed labels than in the field of health care. Any possibility of progress is killed by conservatives who raise the specter of "socialized medicine." Why? The message is that nothing with the dreaded word "socialized" attached to it could ever be any good!

Do you believe that "America has the best health care system in the world"? Unfortunately, it's not true. European countries have superior public health statistics when compared to the USA, and a higher rate of patient satisfaction. Life expectancy in Holland, France, Sweden, and the UK, for example, exceeds that of America, and this longevity costs European countries less. America spends a whopping 13 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on health care compared to 8.5 percent in Holland, 9.4 percent in France, 8 percent in Sweden and 6.7 percent in Britain.

The crippling burden of health care costs on American employers hurts their bottom lines and affects their ability to compete overseas. In Europe, employers contribute far less towards health care, making them competitive in the world market despite longer holidays and better, family-friendly benefits for workers. European employers pay less because governments pay more, up to 84 percent of healthcare costs in Sweden and the UK compared to 40 percent in America.

For the European consumer, health care is usually free. There are no doctors' bills or insurance premiums. Health care costs are paid from taxes, usually sales or "value added" taxes on goods and services. This concept alarms Americans, but only because they don't have all the facts. When I moved to America and added up all the taxes I paid in the USA : Federal, State and local income taxes, sales taxes and the like : then added in monthly medical and dental insurance premiums, I found I was paying as much in the USA as in "high tax" Britain! But here in America I still had medical bills on top of everything else, for things not covered under insurance!Doctors in the UK still make house calls, and everyone — repeat everyone — has free access to health care as a basic human right. In the USA, over 45 million Americans have no health insurance whatsoever and can't pay doctors' bills or go to the doctor when they need to. I know self-employed professional and creative people, writers, teachers, musicians, people in part-time employment, and some who have lost their jobs, who have no health insurance. In America, people lose what benefits they have at the very time they're most vulnerable — unemployed or denied insurance because of "pre-existing" medical conditions.

American conservatives endlessly trumpet their "family values," but families here are more fragile than in Europe. Europe's "social contract" actually supports families and distinguishes that economic superpower from its American rival. Is it "socialist" to promote strong families by free health care? Is Britain a "socialist" nation because of it? Of course not!

Let's face it: America's health care will only improve when Americans are willing to learn from other nations with better systems, rather than demonizing them with silly epithets.

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