I’ve been in Tokyo, Japan this week for business meetings, so have spent a couple of days walking the city and riding in the back of cabs from place to place. In my spare time, I’ve be absorbing as much as I can of Tokyo, walking back streets of shops and trying to experience Japanese culture and cuisine as much as I can. As I’ve become comfortable in this city, I’ve also become painfully aware of the contrasts between Japan and the US of today that couldn’t be more stark. Having been in New York just a few weeks ago, Japan seems like the world of George Jetson while the US reminds me of Fred Flintstone’s City of Bedrock. The streets in Tokyo, even the older narrow ones, are clean, smooth and well maintained. There is no smell of urine and garbage, no panhandlers, no homeless on the streets. The cabs are clean, late model cars with white lace headrest covers and white-gloved drivers wearing suit and tie. The restaurants are soap-and-water clean with friendly service, even in those small establishments where no one speaks a word of English. I’m perfectly comfortable walking the streets and enjoying window shopping the out-of-the-way stores and bars. What a place.
Compared to my last trip to New York, this is a different world. New York has become a cesspool of deteriorating New Deal infrastructure with bone-jarring potholes being slammed into by broken down cabs carrying unhappy passengers in filthy interiors driven by gruff, poorly trained drivers running at life-threatening speeds. Surrounding the oasis that is central Manhattan is an ever encroaching blight of poor buildings, poor jobs, poor services, and poor people. The homeless have multiplied in this latest economic turn-down, adding to the already huge population of the chronic unemployed and abandoned mental patients, who in more normal times of past eras would have at least been cared for with a roof over their heads. Even those with jobs are terrified about threatened unemployment, health insurance companies still dumping “customers” who just happened to get sick, rising food, energy, transportation, and living costs even as salaries shrink. America’s way of life is threatened, while elected leaders in Washington have abandoned the populace (and their Constitutional oath) for power, money, re-election, and perpetual politics.
Usually, when someone (like me) criticizes the direction of the country and pointing to countries like Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Germany as examples of doing it right, you get the huffy, “Well. You KNOW they’re socialists. You want to make us more like socialist countries.” They also always retreat to the “Not with my money!” retort to any suggestion that we can actually improve the plight of all Americans. Shamefully, most of the population has bought into the myth perpetuated on a daily basis by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh that government can do nothing good and that the “free market” cures all ills when that assertion is patently and easily proven false.
So. How is Japan so successful even while the US crumbles? Are they really socialists? Do they pay all their income to taxes and “socialized medicine”? Actually, no. Japan, which has one of the highest standards of living in the world, is the third largest economy, behind the US and China in size, second in trade. Life span is longer, health is better, everyone is covered by a privately run health care system. Oh, and their annual per capita cost for health care is less than half that paid by Americans. And, everyone is covered. Highest individual tax rate is 40%, corporate tax rates are 30%. Individual tax rates are progressive, just as in the US; the more you make, the more you pay.
How are they successful? First, the Japanese are for Japan. It is a collaborative society based on respect of others, and their ancestors. They feel a real responsibility to contribute to the greater good, not just their latest video game purchase. Their investment horizons are years-long rather than monthly as in the US. Even though Japan’s doctors are fiercely independent, they also work in a system that requires coverage for all; pre-existing conditions are non-existent, and no one is turned away, even visitors and illegal immigrants. Because everyone is in, the risk is spread, insurance companies strictly regulated and administrative and treatment costs driven down. Everyone is better off. Contrast that to the US, which is the increasingly popular every-man-for-himself culture, whose health care system is designed to exclude entire segments of the population to increase profits. Preventive care is becoming non-existent, the elderly and the poor face decreasing benefits, even as their needs increase. Genius Governor Rick Perry of Texas boastfully thumps his chest about how tough he is while Texas falls to 50th in health care coverage among the states. (There are only 50, so he’s successfully beat Mississippi to the bottom. Congratulations, Rick.) At the same time, darling of tea party conservatives, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey actually turned down federal funds for a badly needed new tunnel project, killing 6,000 jobs for his citizens while calling for new jobs through tax cuts. Stupid.
As a society, lead by our elected officials only out for themselves, the US has devolved into an isolationist, jingoistic mob. Throw in a little xenophobia, bigotry, and ignorance and you have what we see today. We elect officials who campaign on jobs and reducing the deficit, only to immediately vote in policies that add trillions to that deficit while doing nothing to add jobs. As long as we are an ignorant electorate, voting for narrow, single issue candidates, we get what we vote for…
Ignorance and decline.