Analysis of Dutch society shines light on America

Many Americans — Sean Hannity immediately comes to mind — blithely and ignorantly declare our nation the greatest on Earth. Whether that’s true or not, most Americans lack sufficient knowledge of other nations to judge America’s “greatness” (whatever that means) in the NCAA rankings of countries. Understanding the strengths and flaws and quirks of one’s country requires comparison. And comparison requires more than a caricature of other countries. That’s why I so love a new New York Times article “Going Dutch”, written by an American living in the Netherlands.

It’s a long article depicting both the good (high levels of life satisfaction; health care for all; affordable housing for all; vacation pay for even the unemployed; a true 40-hour workweek) and the bad (high taxes; homogeneous, risk-averse culture; stores closed Sundays) of Holland and tries to explain how Holland developed such a strong sense of togetherness. One part of the answer: the constant threat of flooding that threatens everyone and can only be addressed through cooperation. Another part: The Dutch took their Jesus far more seriously than many American Christians seem to:

There is another historical base to the Dutch social-welfare system, which curiously has been overlooked by American conservatives in their insistence on seeing such a system as a threat to their values. It is rooted in religion. “These were deeply religious people, who had a real commitment to looking after the poor,” Mak said of his ancestors. “They built orphanages and hospitals. The churches had a system of relief, which eventually was taken over by the state. So Americans should get over ‘socialism.’ This system developed not after Karl Marx, but after Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi.”

This excerpt gives a flavor of the article:

I noted with fleeting but pleasant confusion the arrival of two mysterious payments of 316 euros (about $410) each. The remarks line said “accommodation schoolbooks.” …On looking at the payor — the Sociale Verzekeringsbank, or Social Insurance Bank — I nodded… I have two daughters, you see. Every quarter, the SVB quietly drops $665 into my account with the one-word explanation kinderbijslag, or child benefit. As the SVB’s Web site cheerily informed me when I went there in bewilderment after the first deposit: “Babies are expensive. Nappies, clothes, the pram … all these things cost money. The Dutch government provides for child benefit to help you with the costs of bringing up your child.” Any parents living in the country receive quarterly payments until their children turn 18. And thanks to a recently passed law, the state now gives parents a hand in paying for school materials.

Payments arrive from other sources too. Friends who have small children report that the government can reimburse as much as 70 percent of the cost of day care, which totals around $14,000 per child per year. In late May of last year an unexpected $4,265 arrived in my account: vakantiegeld. Vacation money. This money materializes in the bank accounts of virtually everyone in the country just before the summer holidays; you get from your employer an amount totaling 8 percent of your annual salary, which is meant to cover plane tickets, surfing lessons, tapas: vacations. And we aren’t talking about a mere “paid vacation” — this is on top of the salary you continue to receive during the weeks you’re off skydiving or snorkeling. And by law every employer is required to give a minimum of four weeks’ vacation. For that matter, even if you are unemployed you still receive a base amount of vakantiegeld from the government, the reasoning being that if you can’t go on vacation, you’ll get depressed and despondent and you’ll never get a job.

Whether you like or dislike the Dutch system, most Dutch seem to really like it: “A 2007 Unicef study of the well-being of children in 21 developed countries ranked Dutch children at the top and American children second from the bottom.” And they’re less stressed:

Dutch people take both their work and their time off seriously. Indeed, the two go together. I almost never get a work-related e-mail message from a Dutch person on the weekend, while e-mail from American editors, publicists and the like trickle in at any time. The fact that the Dutch work only during work hours does not seem to make them less productive, but more. I’m constantly struck by how calm and fresh the people I work with regularly seem to be.

Their satisfaction should give Americans who look down on European socialism pause.

Posted by James on Tuesday, May 05, 2009