Finley: Are we ready to pay for ‘free’ health care?

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Here’s a question that puzzles many Americans whenever the debate over health insurance reform erupts: All other major industrialized nations provide universal health care to their citizens, why can’t the United States?

The answer is, of course, we can. But like everything else, it ain’t free, despite what the socialists among us would have us believe.

The real question isn’t whether we can have national health care, it’s whether Americans really want to pay for it.

National health care countries pay for the benefits through tax rates that would be considered unbearable by most Americans.

In the U.S., 90 percent of earners pay a real tax rate—income and payroll taxes combined —of below 20.3 percent, according to the Peterson Foundation. The average real tax rate in the European Union is 45 percent.

In the states with the highest social spending, tax rates are highest. France, for example, has an average real tax rate of 57.5 percent; Belgium 56.9 percent; Germany 52.3 percent; and Sweden 47 percent.

While the U.S. has pursued a policy of relieving the tax burden on lower-income workers —nearly half of wage earners pay no federal income tax — Europe’s middle class gets no such break.

In Belgium, for example, Pew Research estimates a married couple, one working at the average wage and one at two-thirds of it, with two kids bears a total tax burden of 38.3 percent.

For a similar American family, the real rate is about half that, at 19.4 percent.

So the government pays for more of your living expenses, but leaves less of your money in your pockets.

Making the switch to that model would require a radical shift in our expectations.

The American dream has traditionally been defined by home ownership. We strive for our own home, on our own land.

Home ownership rates are high in Europe, but the housing stock is vastly different. Only one-third of Europeans live in a detached single family home. Forty percent of the housing in the European Union is two-family flats.

Per-capita living space in the EU is a lot less generous than in the United States, where the average person now has nearly 1,000 square feet to roam around in. In Europe, the average housing space occupied by each person is just over 400 square feet. Are we willing to get that cozy to never have another doctor’s bill arrive in the mail?

Similarly, if you’ve been to Europe or Asia, you’ve noticed the roads are filled with cute little matchbox cars. We like our big trucks and roomy SUVs here. And we can afford to drive them. That’s largely because the average fuel tax in the U.S. is 53 cents a gallon, compared to an average $2.62 cents in the other large, industrial nations.

This is America. We can have anything we want, including government-paid health care. But we can’t get it with a magic wand.

To have it, we must be willing to pay higher taxes, and perhaps live a little smaller. And forget about pretending we can stick the wealthy with the tab.

Europe has extraordinarily high tax rates on its wealthy residents, and yet still must hit the middle class with taxes that consume nearly half their earnings to pay for all those nice things us tax averse Americans envy.

Nolan Finley’s book, “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice,” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.