Interesting stuff in this Op-Ed piece in today's NY Times by Eduardo Porter. Some of the facts he cites confirm what I suspected, and I want to expand on some of what he says as well.

First, the facts.

Among the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of industrial countries, only Mexicans, Koreans and Greeks pay less in taxes than Americans, as a share of the economy. The United States also ranks near the bottom on public spending on social programs: 19 percent of the nation’s total output in 2003, compared with 29 percent in Sweden, 23 percent in Portugal and almost 30 percent in France.
Like Satan*, whose greatest trick was convincing people he didn't exist, the greatest trick the economic right wing ever pulled was convincing Americans that they were overtaxed. We might be able to argue that we're not getting enough value for our money--on health care, for example, that is certainly the case--but our overall burden is not a bad one, especially when compared to the rest of the world.

Mr. Porter also points to a number of studies that suggest that charitable giving is strongly correlated with racial makeup--white people give to white people, in other words, and the more racially diverse an area, the less money is spent on social services. But there's also this:
This breakdown of solidarity should be unacceptable in a country that is, after all, mainly a nation of immigrants, glued together by a common project and many shared values. The United States has showed an unparalleled capacity to pull together in challenging times. Americans have invested blood and treasure to serve a broad national purpose and to rescue and protect their allies across the Atlantic.
I think that we over-hype our "nation of immigrants" status a bit. It's one of those things that some people say to feel good about themselves, but they don't actually believe it.

Here's what I mean. We talk a lot about the melting pot, about the lines on the Statue of Liberty, but we also talk about securing the borders. It's as though our immigrant history is just that--history. We took in lots of people from all over, but those days are done now, and we're not going to do it anymore, unless they're going to mow our lawns or babysit our kids while we dangle the threat of deportation over their heads.

I'm curious as to what percentage of the 300 million people living in the US are first or second generation immigrants, particularly from Europe, since that's the group primarily discussed when the melting pot is invoked. I'll bet it's small, and I'd also bet that even those from that group who identify as a hyphenated person (to steal Carolina Hospital's poetic term) still consider themselves more American than they do their country of origin. And if you get past second generation to people like me whose ancestors came over from Europe more than 100 years ago, the relationship to the old country (or countries, more likely) is even weaker. We're ethnically Americans now, with as little connection to the melting pot as professional wrestling has to sports.

And then there's the suggestion in the paragraph above that "Americans have invested blood and treasure to serve a broad national purpose and to rescue and protect their allies across the Atlantic." That, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bit simplistic. When we have involved ourselves in overseas struggles, we have not done it out of some feel-good, our-friends-are-in-trouble motivation. We've done it because our politicians have decided this country can benefit from it in some way. The politicians may have been wrong about the potential benefits, but that was still the motivation. (Side note--notice the European-centric nature of Porter's quote--I doubt he's talking about Africa.)

His overall point is a good one--we do need to show the ability to rise above ethnic differences and work toward a common good, and using tax money to rebuild our infrastructure is a good way to begin. It may be a necessary tool to use to get ourselves out of this current economic mess, and I would certainly love to see it.

*I speak, of course, of a metaphorical Satan, as opposed to a red-skinned, horned beast with a pitchfork and a bifurcated tail. Or even Dick Cheney.

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