In America, being middle-class is certainly better than being poor. But it could be better — and social democracy offers the way.
Matt Bruenig has calculated that for people in the bottom half of the income distribution, America does objectively worse than the Nordic nations. But what about the upper half — people from the median income on upward, 1 percenters excluded? (Let's call them "Comfortable Americans.") They would benefit from social democracy as well. Taxes would be substantially higher, but the stress, expense, and insecurity of managing college, retirement, and more would be reduced.
Comfortable Americans pay less in taxes than in places like Germany and a lot less than in places like Denmark. But all that extra take-home pay isn't pure gravy. There are still fundamental problems that require money and effort — things like retirement, health insurance, and a college education. In America, these are subsidized through the tax code, but you still have to manage them yourself.
So if you're a Comfortable American, you've got to figure out if your employer offers a 401(k) plan, and if there's a matching contribution, and whether that's a better deal than opening a traditional or Roth IRA, or 457, or 403(b), or some combination thereof. Then you've got health savings accounts and the saver's credit. There's the 529 college savings account, or the education credit if the kid is enrolled in college.
All of this is heavily subsidized through the tax code. But it's still on you to actually figure out which one works best, and which of the mutual fund options are actually a rip-off (spoiler: pretty much all of them). It's so complicated and stressful that there's a huge industry dedicated to figuring it out for you (which is, in a staggering coincidence, also a huge rip-off). If you're like me, you simply freeze up and sock away 10 bucks for the Ernest Hemingway Retirement Solution.
All this adds up to quite a large amount of social spending — but much of it is hellishly inefficient and extremely unpleasant to access, even for the most Comfortable Americans. (Not to mention the fact that a big chunk of most of the above benefits are captured by the 1 percent, and individual investment accounts can be wiped out at any moment if the stock market crashes.)
One enormous hole in the vaunted efficiency of markets is that making lots of choices is a big pain in the neck — and the more important the choice, the more stressful the decision. Studies show that people confronted with too many choices for simple jam just don't buy any. It turns out that a similar phenomenon holds for health insurance. A recent study of employees pushed into high-deductible insurance plans, but given a compensating amount of cash, found that the subjects did not price shop at all. Instead they just cut their health spending across the board. It's called "analysis paralysis."
But there is another way. Instead of the incomprehensible morass of tax credits, deductions, and exclusions, increased taxes could fund a public pension, free public college, universal health insurance, universal paid leave, and so on. How much would it cost? Lane Kenworthy has calculated that a similar middle-of-the-road social democratic plan would cost about 10 points of GDP in taxes. He gets there by a 12 percent value-added tax, a return to the pre-Bush tax rates, plus new brackets on the very rich, a carbon and financial transactions tax, a bump in the payroll tax, and axing the mortgage interest deduction.
Let's imagine a couple with two kids living in Virginia making $100,000. They might take home $70,000, accounting for state income tax, sales tax, and such. The Kenworthy plan, depending on spending and investment profile, might reduce that by $10,000 or so. That's an eye-watering tax increase — but critically, they'd be getting something good for their money. No more flailing around in the tax credit and savings account swamp — just pay roughly the same amount in taxes, and enroll in universal benefits when the time comes. The only real losers will be the 1 percenters, who both reap most of the tax credit harvest and can hire people to figure it out for them (witness Mitt Romney's inexplicable $100 million IRA) — and financial parasites, of course.
Liberals tend to think of the welfare state as being for the poor only, to be used as little as possible. The point of the tax swamp seems to be so people can pretend like they're independent, upwardly mobile bourgeois, while continuing to rely on government handouts. It's a false notion, but it does contribute to a general resentment of taxation as a sort of noblesse oblige to keep the poor from destitution. Universal programs, on the other hand, will definitely benefit the poor the most, but Comfortable Americans will also be compensated with no small measure of ease and security.