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Helping Europe’s Young People

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One nice thing with living in Brussels the chance to meet interesting people.

For example recently I met and spoke with someone who worked for a Non-governmental organization (NGO) that advises the EU government on policies that benefit young people (children and young adults). The conversation was most informative and uplifting, even to a degree one might even call ‘angelic’.

This has me thinking: what are the needs of Europe’s young people? This certainly falls in the domain of cultural psychology — the aim of this weblog.

This problem has concerned me for several years. For example, while living in Spain, the plight of youth there seemed evident: there is, among them, a lack of ambition, hope, and vision. Students ask, “why study hard, why work, when there will be no job or secure future anyway?”

The Population Problem

One main issue affecting the young people of Europe we could alternatively call the “population problem”, the “immigration problem” or the “economy problem” — for they are all related.

Let’s begin with a section of text found in the Call for Papers of the European Sociological Association for the upcoming conference,
Youth and Youth Sociology in Europe

Europe is an ageing continent, which urgently needs immigrants to maintain or to establish basic structures of welfare society. The need for increased immigration has coincided with growing concerns regarding internal security and the coherence of European societies. The EU as the major political and economical actor in Europe is trying at the same time to attract well-educated immigrants and to reduce the inflow of poorly educated immigrants. Managing diversity is, therefore, one of the most pressing challenges for all European societies. Targeted multiculturalism has been the main management strategy of diversity in Europe. This strategy has lead to different and consequently unequal treatment of minorities and caused an increase in tension between different ethnic, cultural and religious groups.

This brief passage reveals quite a bit. First, it clearly states the problem that Europeans are not replenishing themselves — the European birth rate is low and declining.

That is a problem by itself. And, especially, one must consider that this is much more than an economic statistic. One must consider the human dimension as well. People are not, as cynics might suppose, neglecting to start families because they are selfish. They are suffering economically and lack the stability and security that one usually associates with the decision to marry and start a family.

So it is not a matter of, as one writer put it, “Europeans having lost the will to reproduce.” It has nothing to do with personal motivation and everything to do with the economy. When people used to a high standard of living are reduced to borderline poverty, and can barely manage to buy food, no wonder they aren’t thinking about getting married!

The quote above also notes that, in response to declining birth rates, and in order to maintain its “welfare society”, Europe has resorted to attracting immigrants.

Again, this dry fact masks the deeper humanistic dimensions of the problem. Let’s not mince words. What’s happening is this: the European model is that of a “welfare state”, with high taxes, a lot of social programs (and, consequently, a huge amount of government waste). In practical terms, citizens work for the government, instead of the other way around as in the US. The incentive (i.e., “bribe”) everyone has to play along is that some day they will get a nice pension. But who will pay the pensions of people now 40-50 years old if there are too few children? Answer: immigrants.

There you have it. Never mind questions like “how many immigrants are good for European culture as a whole?” That issue — cultural integrity — has little effective weight on the policy decisions. One reason is that, whereas governments are (sometimes) good at making economic decisions, they are not very good at making decisions about “intangibles” — and the integrity of European culture is such an intangible. Yet it is precisely the intangibles of life that are most important: love, joy, peace, happiness, friendship, hope, soul, and so on.

The last time I checked, most people agreed that money can’t buy happiness. Yet European governments are willing to sacrifice the things which traditionally have brought happiness — family, cultural cohesion, tradition, connection with the past, vision of the future — for the sake of funding pensions via massive immigration.

Incidentally, I don’t see even the slightest hint in the quote above that the European Sociological Association or its members recognize the main humanistic dimension of the problem — that young people are personally bfinding it difficult to have families. That the solution is immigration and everyone had better get used to it seems taken entirely for granted. As usual, the academic community can be counted on for extreme myopia and “political correctness.”

There are, however, alternatives. Note that even if it solves the purely financial issue, drawing in immigrants (besides creating new problems) won’t solve the original problem — that Europeans are finding it difficult to have families! That ought to be seen as the main issue; the financial issue is only secondary. If it came down to it, older people should be willing to make a few sacrifices in return for the satisfaction of seeing their own children have children of their own!

With these considerations in mind, here are three concrete suggestions aimed at helping Europe’s young people.

1. Affordable housing

Real estate prices are sky-high throughout western Europe. No wonder young people aren’t having families when they can’t afford homes. Developers don’t routinely consider young families in choosing projects. There’s more profit made in building a 500.000 euro home than something for 80.000 euro. You can’t blame builders for that — it’s a simple matter of profit-margins and the economics of building a house. But governments can help by providing tax advantages to builders who supply affordable housing. They can also help by developing regional plans that include sufficient affordable housing.

2. Better access to higher education

It is almost heartbreaking to see the difficulties young people go through today to get a higher education. Sadly, it is more difficult to get a university education today than it was a generation ago. That is unjust, shameful, and absurd. Europe (and the US) should set a priority on supplying a free university education for every serious and suitably motivated student.

3. Lower income taxes

Now we come to the crux of the matter — the central problem. As noted, the European immigration problem has resulted from the need to support the high-tax, welfare state economies.

Yet, ironically, this very economic system has produced the low birth rates. It should come as no surprise that the reason people are delaying or not having families is because they are too poor. They are too poor because (1) they pay too much of their salary in taxes, and (2) there are too few jobs.

The latter, however, is also a direct consequence of the welfare state model. With high taxes, businesses keep fewer profits, giving people less incentive to start new businesses. Fewer businesses, less jobs.

Questioning the Welfare State Model

The question Europe must ask itself is why the United States has a stronger, more productive, and more resilient economy, and an equal or greater standard of living, without relying on Welfare State economics?

Some respond that the US system lacks a fair “social security net” for the disadvantaged. But is this true, or merely an assumption? In fact, retirees do well in the US, relying upon their national social security payments after age 65 and their Medicare health insurance.

What about health insurance? We hear “American lack universal health coverage.” Yes, this is a problem, but it is exaggerated. First, only 16% of Americans lack health insurance. (I am one of them, in fact.) But second, because health care is reasonably priced, and because Americans, unlike Europeans, keep most of their income instead of having it taxed away, one can simply see a doctor and pay cash. That’s what physicians prefer. The paperwork associated with health insurance claims is costly and a nuisance for all parties concerned. If we simply paid “cash for service” for most routine medical costs, everyone would benefit. A sensible US national health plan would be two-tiered: national insurance for catastrophic illness and hospitalization; but, say, to get a prescription for an antibiotic you’d pay out of pocket (but only about $50).

So the argument that, “the US lacks universal health insurance” is over-rated. I don’t know if anyone’s done the economics, but my guess is that if the US added basic universal health insurance for all citizens, Americans would still end up paying much less income tax than Europeans.

The bottom line is that the welfare state is a dinosaur. It doesn’t work. It robs people of the incentive to work and to produce. The very fact that western European countries are trying to prop things up with massive immigration demonstrates this.

We should look with hopeful anticipation at the experiments of former eastern-bloc European countries like Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which have adopted low flat income taxes. Hopefully, if the liberals in those countries give the systems time to work, it will stimulate their economies.

If only we could get countries like Spain or Germany to follow suit!

Written by John Uebersax

July 13, 2008 at 8:18 pm