Friday, July 29, 2005

Family Values: Lip Service Versus Real Support

Paul Krugman writes about family values and who really supports them: American social conservatives, whose idea of family-friendly public policy is banning gay marriage and forcing 13-year-old girls to have babies; or the French, with their social infrastructure of public policies that actually make it possible for French families to choose lower income and fewer working hours in exchange for more time to have a personal life.

Americans tend to believe that we do everything better than anyone else. That belief makes it hard for us to learn from others. For example, I've found that many people refuse to believe that Europe has anything to teach us about health care policy. After all, they say, how can Europeans be good at health care when their economies are such failures?

Now, there's no reason a country can't have both an excellent health care system and a troubled economy (or vice versa. But are European economies really doing that badly?

The answer is no. Americans are doing a lot of strutting these days, but a head-to-head comparison between the economies of the United States and Europe - France, in particular - shows that the big difference is in priorities, not performance. We're talking about two highly productive societies that have made a different tradeoff between work and family time. And there's a lot to be said for the French choice.

There's been a lot of attention paid lately to differing European and American philosophies about the balance between work and leisure. My sense is that Krugman focuses on France in particular because France seems to get the lion's share of Americans' antipathy toward the European approach to living.

Krugman's analysis of why the French are able to make the choice to spend more time with family and friends leads inevitably to a broader, more fundamental difference in the ways Europe and the United States have chosen, as societies, to order their priorities. It's not that people in France and other Western European countries love their families and friends more, or value time spent with family and friends more than Americans do. It's that the French, and Europeans in general, have grasped the concept that public policy -- the vast network of laws and government regulations that reflect a society's deeply held beliefs about what is important and valuable -- has a significant impact on individual choices. You can't simply choose to spend more hours with the people you love if doing so will mean you cannot pay for visits to the doctor, or for housing in a good school district. In France, and in other European countries, you are not forced to choose between family time and health insurance; or between family time and a high-powered job that gives you the income to live in a town or district where the schools are excellent. Of course, the French pay a price in lower income levels and less stuff, but it's apparently worth it to them.

The French family, without question, has lower disposable income. This translates into lower personal consumption: a smaller car, a smaller house, less eating out.

But there are compensations for this lower level of consumption. Because French schools are good across the country, the French family doesn't have to worry as much about getting its children into a good school district. Nor does the French family, with guaranteed access to excellent health care, have to worry about losing health insurance or being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.

Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. In America, that figure is less than four.

So which society has made the better choice?

1 comment:

Blue Cross of California said...

I agree with Krugman on his views of health insurance and how lip service versus real support.