I filed my income taxes this week. I have always thought that the two most patriotic things that most Americans can do are vote and pay your taxes. These days, most Americans don’t vote, and the common wisdom for the past 40 years is that income taxes are too high. This, despite the fact that the richest Americans today pay less than half of what they paid in the 1950s. The ridiculously low income tax rates we have today account for the reason why our health care system is in a shambles.
As I edge my way ever closer to Medicare eligibility, I have to marvel at how dysfunctional America is when it comes to health care. The news from Washington is that 6 million people have signed up for Obamacare, while a new poll shows that 41% of Americans would like it to be repealed. After spending some time recently discussing health care with people in Denmark, I am convinced we are on the wrong track. And the tragedy is we could have avoided all this by simply phasing in Medicare for everyone over a 10-year period. But that might have required raising taxes.
Denmark, like most other developed nations, provides basic health care for free to everyone. It is paid for out of taxes. And if you want to see a Dane get agitated, mention income taxes. They pay roughly double what we pay. But ask them if it’s worth it and they will tell you that, by and large, it is. Oh sure, there are waiting lists for some elective surgery. But when a medical emergency hits, Danes know they don’t have to worry. It’s going to be paid for. They will not be bankrupted by a long hospital stay.
In fact, the only bad thing Danes seem to say about their health care system is that it’s too good. By that they mean it’s so good that people from poorer countries like Romania are flocking to Denmark to take advantage of Danish generosity. As I listened to some Danish women explain this to me, I immediately thought about the way some Americans talk about immigrants, particularly from Latin America, who come to the United States to collect welfare. The difference is that in the United States we have just about dismantled the welfare system, and people are falling through economic catastrophe without a safety net. And we have an army at our Southern border with orders to stop anyone who tries to cross without a visa.
Meanwhile, in Denmark, no matter how much they resent poor people coming to their country for the social benefits, they have not dismantled their social safety net. And because they are part of the European Community, they can’t legally stop the immigration. And some Danes actually see value for their country in allowing immigration. It provides talent and ambition that have always been the lifeblood of any progressive society. They see what America has done as akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Obamacare will not solve America’s health care crisis because it starts from the wrong premise. It doubles down on the system we already have where insurance companies are given the role of health care gatekeeper. Capitalism is so out of control in this country that many Americans actually believe that it’s a good idea to have profit-making companies in a position to decide what medical test you can get. They complain bitterly about a government takeover of health care and actually prefer to have insurance companies in charge. Danes look at this and shake their heads. Why would anyone want a company that has an interest in allowing you as little health care as possible be in charge of health care, they asked me. These companies have a conflict of interest. Isn’t it better to have a neutral government official in that role?
I could not defend our system, except to say that it works very well for rich people. Those who can afford the best insurance here will get excellent health care – better than they would get in Denmark. But for the rest of us, the present system sucks, and Obamacare is not likely to make it much better.
After my conversations in Denmark, I am convinced that the only solution is higher taxes. That’s right, higher taxes. Americans have to get over the hysteria about taxes and see the long-term benefits of not having to worry about a tsunami of a co-pay that we all are one illness away from. And while we’re raising those taxes, let’s make state universities free for eligible students and liberate young people from a lifetime of debt. That’s another good idea we could borrow from Denmark.