What Germany could teach America about health-care reform and government's role

Like Americans, Germans get frustrated by big government, but they share a conviction that it has a mandate to provide security and help citizens help themselves. America's ideological standoff over government's role, meanwhile, is paralyzing its politics and thwarting economic progress.

Germany’s recent overhaul of its health insurance system was big news here. It was controversial and contained substantial changes to the way Germans pay for and receive care.

The bigger news was how it passed: rather quickly, quietly, and with the understated touch of a professional political establishment. In other words, wholly opposite to the hyperbolic dysfunction Americans have grown accustomed to.

This is not because Germany is a utopian democracy; nor because its coalition government is above ridicule; nor because its politicians are immune to incompetence, greed, and corruption. Instead, there is a near universal acceptance of a specified government role in society and economy. The same cannot be said for the United States.

Actually, Germans don't love big government

Many Americans make two mistakes when looking across the Atlantic. The first is the belief that citizens of European countries love big, intrusive government. False. A political conversation with your typical German, for example, reveals a loathing of bureaucracy and taxes equal to that of any ardent tea party activist.

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The difference is that Germans are likely to be more keenly aware of the nature and necessity of government. They understand how the government weaves itself into the socioeconomic fabric, and that the government must do this to ensure a minimum of fairness for its citizens.

Americans, meanwhile, are likely to demand that government keep out of even government programs, such as Medicare.

Freedom through security

It's not affection for government that keeps the “social” in social democracy, but the undeniable necessity for it. Americans are said to embrace freedom as their highest value, but there is little freedom in the nearly 10 percent unemployed, and the millions more burdened by college and household debt, who have no choice but to find whatever work they can get, regardless of their skills or potential, because there is little buffer between them and the unfeeling market.

As an English teacher in Germany, I regularly see how the government steps in to help individuals help themselves. There are government-funded training programs for those both looking for work and those looking to move up in their workplace. There are government subsidies for businesses that have avoided layoffs during the crisis and invested in workers. And in Berlin, many of my students come to me during their state-mandated education holiday – a week to focus on a skill that is in addition to the nearly four weeks of normal holiday leave they enjoy.

These and other actions better enable Germany to prevent or mitigate crises in a predictable manner, securing its citizens and providing much needed stability to markets. The US government, meanwhile, must scramble time and again to react to events as they arise. The result is corporate bailouts and ad-hoc stimulus that no one cares for and leave markets guessing.

France is not Germany

Then there is the second common mistake Americans make about Europe: They see a collective continent in place of a collection of countries. Britain is not Denmark; Denmark is not France; and France is not Germany. Eastern and southern European countries, though increasingly part of the same economic union, are in many ways a world apart from their western neighbors.

Failing to see differences within the eurozone is akin to drawing no contrast between New Hampshire (New England’s often Republican outcast) and Vermont (just across the border, yet one of the more socially liberal states in the union.)

Germany's federal system and unease with too-strong of a central government may actually put it closer to the United States than its European neighbors. The parts of both America's and Germany's contemporary whole were once autonomous entities. Germany enjoys a huge economy, a famed manufacturing base, and a love for Volkswagen on par with America's fealty to GM. It juggles a large, diverse population that in many regions is more conservative and religious than Europe is often generalized as being.

What ties these disparate threads together is the understanding that government exists to carry out certain responsibilities, and Germany’s state and federal governments have a definitive mandate to do so. Germans may debate how government conducts business, but not that it does.

America needs nation balancing at home

The absence of a similar mandate in the United States has become exponentially more acute. Preoccupied with nation building other countries, the United States is in dire need of nation balancing at home.

This is not a new challenge, of course, but one that has shaped American history since the beginning. The inability to define government's end of the social contract came close to halting the colonial independence movement before it began, later resulted in a constitution left wide open to interpretation, and culminated in civil war. Today, government can't keep lead out of toys, oil out of the Gulf, financial services out of the backroom, and put all Americans under private insurance policies not because it's too small or too big, as some would have us believe, but because we still haven't decided whether government should be small or big.

IN PICTURES: Germany sinkhole

It's the limbo that's wrecking us. Wrestling with policy is a normal, and necessary, component of any democracy, but an ideological standoff disconnected from evolving social and economic realities stymies progress and further polarizes and paralyzes the political system.

There needs to be some essential consensus that government has a specific role to play. America needs a framework within which the government can serve as a representative and protector of the individual against the overreach of market and global forces.

Until then, ambiguity will remain a fundamental obstacle to finding solutions for America’s mounting problems.

Bill Glucroft is an English trainer and consultant in Berlin. He blogs at mediabard.org.

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