Thursday, September 19, 2013

Royal Austerity in Holland

I read this with my morning cup of coffee:

King Willem-Alexander delivered a message to the Dutch people from the government in a nationally televised address: the welfare state of the 20th century is gone.
In its place a "participation society" is emerging, in which people must take responsibility for their own future and create their own social and financial safety nets, with less help from the national government. 


"The shift to a 'participation society' is especially visible in social security and long-term care," the king said, reading out to lawmakers a speech written for him by Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government. 

"The classic welfare state of the second half of the 20th century in these areas in particular brought forth arrangements that are unsustainable in their current form." 

Rutte may be hoping that the pomp and ceremony surrounding the king and his popular wife, Queen Maxima, will provide a diversion from the gloomy reality of a budget full of unpopular new spending cuts he revealed later in the day. 


The king said Tuesday some costs for the care of the elderly, for youth services, and for job retraining after layoffs will now be pushed back to the local level, in order to make them better tailored to local circumstances. 

The king earns an annual salary of around 825,000 euros ($1.1 million), though maintaining the Royal House — castles, parades and all — costs the government more than 100 million euros annually. 

Then I realized that nobody had participated in making me that coffee!  Nobody!  And neither had the welfare state.  Drat.

More seriously, perhaps the new king of the Netherlands is so beloved by the people that they see nothing funny about a guy costing the government more than 100 million euros per year talking about the need to cut back on the care of the elderly, youth service and job retraining.  For that's what it means when those services are sent down to a local level.

The wider angle to all this, the death of the welfare state, serves nicely those who are wealthy, of course.  And I get the arguments people like Mark Rutte make (though I disagree about the possible consequences of austerity politics). 

But what they seem to completely ignore is that almost all the good things in the recent century have come from countries which were welfare states.  Free education guaranteed  educated labor, good health care guaranteed relatively healthy and energetic workers and old-age pensions took care of the burden of how to care for the elderly. 

If we begin to scrap all those institutions we are going to go backwards, to a world in which I, at least, have no desire to live.  I thought the idea was to lift the rest of the world to the same relative standard of living as people in Europe and North America now enjoy, not to send even the Europeans and North Americans back to a life of always-looming poverty.

For that's how I  read the argument that the welfare state is over.  And what on earth is a participation society?  What are people doing today, if not participating?

The immediate concerns this provokes have to do with the distributive aspects.  The services will be curtailed and someone else will be expected to cover the gaps.  That "someone" else in most cases will be the immediate family of a sick or elderly person, assuming he or she didn't save for the needs before.  And in practice this will affect women even more than men, given the traditional patterns of care-giving.

I get that the welfare state is not actually in the process of being killed.  But the propaganda here is to start accepting that idea, slowly but surely, not just cuts in existing services or a determination not to expand them. That's something to be very concerned about.